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How TRAI’s SMS Guidelines Are Killing My Startup – Dayson Pais, Textme

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Imagine you’re part of an average middle class family and you break the news that you want to be an entrepreneur. You want to change the world with your new idea. Imagine the months spent meticulously building the dream project. Imagine the fights over dinner on how you should just get a regular job. Imagine finally launching your product and tasting sweet success.

Now imagine an outdated Government regulation nuking an entire flourishing industry, taking your tiny dream along with it. This is the story of how TRAI’s SMS spam guidelines are killing my legitimate startup.

We started in early 2011, launching a private beta of our product called Textme, a service that makes website content shareable with any mobile phone in the country. The idea was simple, we provide a Textme button to every website. Any user who wants info from that site can click on the button and we send him or her an SMS with the appropriate content. The idea proved to be a hit and Textme was used over two million times by users demanding content from websites through our button.

Encouraged by our success, we arranged all kinds of loans and pooled in our personal money to develop the technology, buy servers and the best SMS services, all amounting to several lakhs. Working non-stop for 8 months we managed to build an evolved version of Textme ( presently waiting at http://ontextme.com ) which was due for a public release on the 23rd of this month. Then came the shocker.

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On 27th Sept 2011 TRAI declared war on the SMS industry to which we were unwittingly part of.

The resulting regulation, aimed at amputating the SMS spam from an otherwise clean industry, instead damaged and crippled an entire legit businesses. There was a lot of loss to reputation as regular users who just wanted to send SMS to their friends were clueless as to what was going on.

Let me take you through the TRAI regulations to show you what it means and how it affects us (and similar services) –

#1 You are evil unless…

TRAI in great brevity declared the entire SMS industry to be anti-consumer and stated that unless you are a bank, a financial institution, a DTH operator, an Airline or an authorized agency of the Indian Railways, you fall under the “Promotional” category.

What this means is that unless my business is any of the above, TRAI believes I am sending unwanted messages to people. What we don’t understand is how they arbitrarily segregate businesses this way. Textme as an example, is a service in which people demand an SMS to be sent to their phones. I can think of many other responsible businesses like Burrp, Justdial, Flipkart and Bookmyshow among others where people demand to receive an SMS. How and why are we deemed “Promotional” ?

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#2 The consequences of being “promotional”

Now that we’ve been bracketed into the “promotional” stereotype, TRAI begins the punishment :

140 million mobile phone users are pushed into a clueless registry called NCPR. This is effectively a walled enclosure where no “promotional” messages can reach.

To put this into perspective, Textme is a one-to-one messaging service. We send an SMS only when you ask for it. We do not send a message without verifying your mobile number and there’s only one sms sent for every request you make. We do not have any ads at the end of the sms. It’s as good as having a mobile phone on your screen. There’s nothing you can do on Textme, that you can’t do using your own cell phone. We just make it convenient and free.

Now with the TRAI rules, even if you are asking for your favourite website content through an SMS with Textme, it won’t get delivered. If you’re in the NCPR the SMS just won’t reach you.

These are hefty punishments for young clean entrepreneurs who don’t want to go into the bribe and hide cycle.

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#3 The early sleepers

TRAI dictates that no SMS will be sent between 9pm to 9am irrespective of whether our customer is registered under the NCPR or not .

The more you read that statement, the more ridiculous it sounds. How is a web startup suppose to function only 12 hours a day? What are we supposed to tell our users and financiers? Shop closed? There’s a huge internet audience out there that logs in after 9pm and is awake till early morning. It’s around 30% of our volumes. The bigger web-based sms services like way2sms, 160by2 and fullonsms would give you a better picture of what volumes (or drop in revenues) we are talking about. We understand if you put a ban on bulk or group sms during this period, but a ban on one-to-one personal messaging through SMS API’s is totally unfair. We (and other similar services) are as good as a mobile phone on screen.

#4 The last nail in the coffin

No more sender id’s like TM-TRAFFIC, TM-FLIPKART or TD-BATRA. We now get an alpha-numeric code like TD-644100 or DZ-066152.

Earlier, I’d delete a message the moment I’d see the name of a telemarketer, but now I’ve to read it to know who it is from and then delete it. How is this helping curb spam? I can’t even reach out to the spammer without placing an official complaint. Services like way2sms, 160by2, etc allowed me to send a personal message to my friend through my mobile number as the sender id. This allowed the receiver to identify me naturally and reply to it conveniently. Textme used this technology too, but now our users will merely read LM-650787.

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#5 The only way out? – NCPR promotional categories

TRAI declared that they would make 7 categories for promotional businesses and if a mobile phone user wishes, they can open up to any of these categories and allow messages in.

Now all the industries in the country have to choose between these 7 categories. We would for eg. fall under the  “Communication / Broadcasting / Entertainment / IT” category.

Let us clarify how this works. If you’re registered in the NCPR directory, you can white list a category of messages you’d like to receive. For example, if you’d like to receive alerts from your hospital, you’d logically pick the category called “Health”. Sounds good? No, it doesn’t! Now you’d also be unwillingly receiving alerts from health care, yoga and skincare brands. It gets even worse for Textme as the category we fall under also includes Broadcasting, Entertainment & IT. There are thousands of other companies who will spam under this category.

It takes 7 days to opt-in, opt-out or modify your NCPR preferences. Why should it take so long? This implies that we’ve to hope that our disappointed user will first opt-out of NCPR, then wait for 7 days and then return to us to try our service again.

Final thoughts

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The regulations uploaded by TRAI online are filled with flaws and technical mistakes. Their usage of certain terms is inappropriate. They don’t know how to differentiate between a SIM and an API.  How is it that they’ve provided exemptions to international & very large local companies based on unknown criterias? Is it because they can exert more pressure? They’re conveying the image of a regulator which allows unfair competition and I wouldn’t be surprised if companies are trying to bribe their way out. Earlier, we trusted their intentions to be right, now we’re unsure as to what they’re running after.

Spam Protection & Privacy Policy are the two promises Textme ( http://ontextme.com ) makes. In fact, we’re a result of the demand for a spam free send to mobile service . There is absolutely no reason why one-to-one messaging services should be subjected to such ridiculous and impractical regulations. Instead of categories, users should be able to allow or disallow companies and services of their choice through an instant and convenient mechanism. We have all the mechanisms and limits to curb any kind of spam or promotional usage of Textme. Our daily limits for a logged in user are even lower than TRAI’s 100 sms / day.

The average age of our team is 22 years old. The half of our team which is still in college failed their exams and kept bunking lectures while the other half skipped their paying jobs to make this happen. We overcame all challenges – the technology, the intellectual property, the volumes, the social strength, the business model and most importantly an investment of a significantly large amount. (which is now on hold, thank you TRAI).

This TRAI regulation is a significant challenge to overcome and we need the support of fellow enterprises similarly affected. Give us a hand in rolling back (or revising) the regulation.


Dayson Pais has energy + enthusiam for all things web. He is the co-founder of Webly, a creative web agency, Epicwhale, a design and technology incubator and is now on his first consumer product Textme. He loves managing business operations and building websites, brands & designs. Catch him on twitter @dayson

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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the authors personal views and not representative of views held by MediaNama

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