BUILDING TECHNOLOGY companies isn’t new in India. We have gone through multiple phases of building technology; the only thing that has changed is who we have built it for. We first built technology for the mostly English-speaking global market through companies like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and others. We then built for the English-speaking Indian user through Naukri, MakeMyTrip, BookMyShow, Flipkart and Swiggy. The last five years have seen us building for the Indian language-speaking audience as a pure consumer of content. We are now seeing a phase of empowerment products, like Vokal and Koo, which allow Indian language users to not just consume but to ask questions and express themselves. There will be a future phase as well when India will build for the world once again, but this time we will be taking our own innovation to countries with a majority non-English-speaking population.
It was back in 2012 that I had my first tryst with building an app for the Indian language speaking user. At TaxiForSure, we actually decided to build the driver app before the rider app. It was one of the first ever apps to be built in India. The first version made me think how difficult the drivers would find it to navigate in English on the app. Ever since, I have believed that to really empower new Indian users, it was essential to build apps in local languages.
The English-knowing world takes the internet for granted. What we don’t realise is the fact that simple things enabled on the internet have changed our lives and accelerated our individual growth stories. What truly changed us is the fact that we could search for information and knowledge, seamlessly communicate with people across the globe, connect with people we knew and didn’t know, express freely what was on our minds.
In the last few years, products developed for new internet users were focused on increasing time spent on the app, and making India a big consumption market for video content. While that is important for the overall adoption of the internet, it is definitely not enough to empower the new internet users of India. What will truly empower them is to allow them to search, connect and communicate like they never have. This is the thought with which we started working on our products, Vokal and Koo. Vokal is an audio-based search platform that allows users to ask questions in voice and returns answers in voice as well. Koo is an Indian microblogging app that allows every Indian to speak their mind, irrespective of language.
WHILE BUILDING VOKAL, some of our users who contribute answers in Indian languages asked us why they must only answer questions that are posted, and why they couldn’t just talk about whatever they had in mind. This got us thinking. There were already enough apps to go and express oneself. That is when we realised that the existing apps didn’t give users the comfort of being themselves, the biggest discomfort being that the app was primarily in English.
We added a quick ‘express’ button to Vokal. That didn’t take off at all. We realised that one app can only stand for one thing. Vokal was a question-answer app, and will always be. Expression needed a separate app. That’s when we decided to build Koo.
The reason to open an app is what we call the mood of an app. Instagram, for example, has the mood of lifestyle. Creators create to express their lifestyle and users follow to consume lifestyle. Similarly, LinkedIn is a professional network and the mood is to connect around work and career. Mixing two or more different moods on a single app has never worked. One app-one mood is the mantra for social media apps.
Finding other users from the same linguistic community is easier, and it also leads to discussions around topics that are of importance to that particular community
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AT KOO, WE built features that localise expression. For example, one needs to enter a language-based community when using the app. This enables the app entirely in the chosen language, putting the user at ease. Finding other users from the same linguistic community is easier, and it also leads to discussions around topics that are of importance to that particular community. We have also made typing in local languages very easy.
This concept of localising for Indian users is what will help us innovate. Observing user behaviour is what will lead to building unique features and products altogether. Who better than an Indian who lives in India to localise and build for the new internet user?
IT IS A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME opportunity for India. We can either give away our digital independence on a platter to the global giants or become part of the growing trend of becoming digitally atmanirbhar. The unique opportunity to build the Silicon Valley of the East and to lead the way by building for a billion-plus Indians with our deep understanding of the Indian user is in front of each one of us.
We at Koo, a 10-month-old product, have chosen to play our role in making India digitally atmanirbhar. We truly believe that in the next three years, we will also be able to go global and announce to the world the power of Indian technology.
The startup ecosystem in India has the ability to dream, the talent to build, the funds to invest and the necessary support from the Government. The biggest support right now is and will continue to come from the users of India. There is at present a wave of emotion in favour of Indian apps. It is up to Indian entrepreneurs to build products that earn the unconditional love that Indian users are willing to shower on us.
Building for a digitally Atmanirbhar Bharat is almost like playing a T20 international in front of a packed stadium. A lot of Indian entrepreneurs are building their products live in front of the whole country and at most times with super small teams taking on some of the largest companies of the world. As in a cricket match, there is commentary—both good and bad. There will be moments of elation and dejection. For those who choose to be in the audience, here’s your chance to cheer like never before. Go on, pick your team and cheer.
For the entrepreneurs who want to be a part of this unique moment in Indian history, dig deep, keep it simple and execute; your product might just be the next big global technology giant.