Sayali Rai and Niyati Thaker of FinCocktail (Photo: Emanual Karbhari)
BACK IN 2020, WHEN Sharan Hegde first started uploading personal finance videos on YouTube, he realised just how difficult it would be to break through. There were already several established YouTubers who posted content in this domain. And the 23-year-old, who had just quit his job at a large consulting firm because of the pay cuts and promotion freezes brought on by the pandemic, struggled. He began using Instagram around that time to promote his YouTube videos. But something strange happened. His YouTube subscriber base remained static but the number of followers on Instagram surged.
Hegde began to experiment, he says, condensing financial topics and concepts in short pithy videos that he would upload only on Instagram. “I used to think how can you explain dense financial concepts in short 30-second videos. Even if you do so, will people even be interested?” Hegde says. “But what I realised is that just 1 per cent of individuals are interested in long content. The rest of the 99 per cent like short, entertaining videos.”
Since then, participating in viral trends and challenges, using catchy reels and videos where he enacts comic skits or collaborates with other Instagram influencers, Hegde has built one of the most entertaining and popular Instagram accounts around personal finance in India. His “Finance With Sharan” now has over 1.9 million followers on the social media platform.
Hegde is part of a small but rapidly growing breed of influencers operating in the niche area of personal finance and wealth creation. Some like him create short, catchy videos that are meant to go viral on Instagram and Facebook, while others put up longer and more in-depth content on platforms like YouTube. They are courted by brands who hope to use their reach and clout among millennials to sell everything from traditional insurance policies to new-age options like cryptocurrencies. While older and more financially savvy investors might find some of their content and investment mantras simplistic, they are addressed to those who have just joined the workforce and are beginning their investment journey.
“Here were all these successful women—businesswomen, a lawyer, a doctor. And each of their finances and investments was being handled by some male member in their family. I was appalled,” says Sayali Rai, cofounder, FinCocktail
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At 40, Mukul Malik, whose Asset Yogi channel on YouTube has nearly 3.5 million subscribers, is visibly older than the many chirpy and enthusiastic wealth influencers one encounters on viral Instagram videos. Speaking mostly in Hindi, which ensures he has a huge following even beyond the metros, his delivery is straightforward and to the point. “I think the two main reasons people keep coming back to me is my relatability and honesty,” he says. “I’ve been there where they have been. I’ve made those same mistakes. And I’m always honest, not trying to sell them something.”
Unlike others, Malik has also been around for much longer. His experiences in the stock market and real estate led him first to write a blog in 2014, but once mobile data plans became cheap with the arrival of Jio and Indians began to consume more YouTube videos, Malik started putting up videos on YouTube in 2017. He focused on real estate topics initially but quickly moved to personal finance when he realised a larger audience waiting there. Malik’s videos cover a wide range, anywhere from the analysis of the latest financial news to something as basic as a step-by-step guide on filing one’s income-tax returns. “We had been growing rapidly all these years. We reached the 1,000-subscriber mark in about three months, and then around 10,000 in the next three months, and so on. But then when Covid happened, everything went through the roof,” Malik says.
In the last few years, the ways we go about investment have seen a massive shift in India. Affordable smartphones, inexpensive data plans, and the ubiquity of digital payment systems have brought in huge numbers of young investors from distant parts of the country. New types of broking firms with their apps have also helped feed this trend. The pandemic witnessed record numbers of investors entering the fray for the first time. India went from 40.9 million Demat accounts in March 2020, according to the data released by depository firms National Securities Depository Limited and Central Depository Services, to 100.5 million by August 2022.
“I used to think how can you explain dense financial concepts in short 30-second videos. Even if you do so, will people even be interested? But what I realised is that just 1 per cent of individuals are interested in long content. The rest of the 99 per cent like short, entertaining videos,” says Sharan Hegde, founder, Finance With Sharan
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While huge numbers entered the fray, most lacked the requisite knowledge. Traditional avenues where first-time investors learn the nuts and bolts of finance—like business news channels and pink papers—aren’t something millennials and young investors typically consume, these wealth influencers say. That’s where the influencer with both the understanding of the heavy-duty world of finance and the necessary chops of a viral social media star comes in. “The new investor needs financial education, someone who cuts through the jargon and lays everything down in layman’s terms,” says Malik.
It was around this time when record numbers of individuals were coming online to learn about wealth creation that Sayali Rai and Niyati Thaker, two friends based in Mumbai, began considering starting their own enterprise around finance content. But unlike other wealth influencers, they had an even more niche target. They wanted to cater to women.
“I was doing a dinner with my girlfriends when the idea first occurred,” says Rai, who formerly worked as an investment banker with Citi. “Here were all these successful women—businesswomen, a lawyer, a doctor. And each of their finances and investments was being handled by some male member in their family. I was appalled,” she says. Thaker, who was then a wealth manager at ASK Wealth Management and itching to start something of her own, joined Rai to start an Instagram account (FinCocktail) dedicated to helping women understand personal finance. “Finance is not some complicated subject like it is made out to be. And women are very capable of handling their own finances,” Thaker says. “It’s kind of ingrained in our society,” Rai goes on, pointing to the prevalence of these notions in even upwardly mobile households where women hold successful careers. “How women are supposed to have wine and gossip, and the men drink whisky and discuss the stock market,” she says.
This is challenging demography for a wealth influencer to target. Not only do women make up a smaller cohort compared to men when it comes to investing in India, but even the internet in India is reported to be predominantly male. And while Rai and Thaker started FinCocktail with women consumers in mind, a lot of people following them turned out to be male. “We realised that even the men were equally in need of finance being demystified for them,” Thaker says. Most wealth influencers in India typically tend to have around one or two female followers out of every 10, Thaker says, while FinCocktail has about four females out of every 10.
While Hegde began to see a large jump in followers once he shifted his focus to Instagram, he had not left all the vestiges of his earlier YouTube days behind. In his earliest Instagram videos, he would sit in front of his mobile, delivering monotonous lines like an old-fashioned newsreader reading from a teleprompter. But after a skit he performed with his sister based on an Instagram trend went viral, he arrived at his new formula of comic skits containing some nuggets of financial wisdom. “Finance, insurance, these are boring topics. Let’s face it. You have to make it fun,” he says.
“I think the two main reasons people keep coming back to me is my relatability and honesty. I’ve been there where they have been. I’ve made those same mistakes. And I’m always honest, not trying to sell them something,” says Mukul Malik, founder, Asset Yogi
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His most popular skit, with over 18 million views, remains a video where he collaborated with another influencer to point out why it is more financially logical to invest in sovereign gold bonds than to purchase gold abroad because that will invariably incur charges to have them made into jewellery.
These are the sorts of ideas that one can glean from online sources and media reports. But the trick, wealth influencers say, is in being able to package this sort of knowledge in ways to make it go viral on social media. Many of these influencers now have large teams working with them on various aspects of social media marketing and their growing allied businesses. Some, like Hegde, also use content researchers who brainstorm and help come up with ideas, and do the necessary legwork to ensure they are accurate and well-fleshed out, while others are so particular that they remain the only ones who ideate and script their videos.
MANY OF them are also branching out into allied fields. Hegde offers a course on personal finance, and writes scripts for TV commercials, while also writing a book on how he became a social media influencer. Rai and Thaker, who are now branching out to do podcasts, also conduct webinars on personal finance, and one-on-one consultations where they offer more detailed investment guidance. Most of them are working towards building their own financial advisory platforms. “While record numbers of Demat accounts were opened in the last two years, around 70 to 80 per cent of them are believed to be inactive. There is the scope to solve a problem there,” says Malik, who is building one such financial advisory vertical. Pranjal Kamra, who with over 4.6 million subscribers is one of the most popular wealth influencers on YouTube, has already established his own venture (Finology), which provides financial education courses, advice on investments, and research tools.
There is one issue that arises with the growing popularity of wealth influencers. Most of them operate in a regulatory no-man’s land. It is one thing to push a beauty product and quite another to recommend financial products. There are rules which prohibit individuals from recommending such products if they have been paid for unless they are registered as investment advisers with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). But how effectively can these rules be enforced across social media and their influencers isn’t something that is always clear. Most wealth influencers claim they stay away from recommending anything specific, but their tie-ups with sponsors and brands can make their advice sound suspect.
“Just look at all those BYPL [buy now, pay later] and cryptocurrency exchange ads that were so big last year. Influencers were being paid to promote it. Do you think they [wealth influencers] would have done any content looking at their risks?” asks Kamra.
Kamra himself began uploading content around finance back in 2017. Then a law student who had recently completed his postgraduate programme in the securities market and returned to his hometown Raipur in Chhattisgarh, he was looking, Kamra says, to marry his twin passions—investing and public speaking—when he turned to YouTube. “I did 60 videos over eight months,” he says. “I didn’t even have any equipment. Just my mobile, which I would prop up on some books.” It took some time for the channel to catch on. But once he switched to Hindi, and his skills online improved, his videos started getting millions of viewers.
“I did 60 videos over eight months. I didn’t even have any equipment. Just my mobile, which I would prop up on some books,” says Pranjal Kamra, founder, Finology
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Kamra, like other influencers, also does brand promotions and sponsorships, but he does not let that, he says, cloud his opinion online. “I don’t look at it as a commercial thing. Most of my time goes into my venture [Finology]. I only put up content once in 10 or 12 days, and only when I feel I have something to say,” he says.
Most wealth influencers owe their popularity to the massive interest seen among the youth during the pandemic. People not only had more time on their hands—and many were particularly concerned about their finances with the threats of job losses and salary cuts—but this was also the period when the stock market witnessed a massive boom. Will they continue to remain popular in a more sober climate, hit by inflation and price rise?