Building and scaling a social network startup in India: lessons from Sharechat

Social and content startups have come a long way in India. From having literally no large Indian product five years ago to now two unicorns in the space- Dailyhunt, and Glance.

Sharechat, another Indian company, has been the pioneer of social network startups in India. In 2015, Sharechat came to India Quotient’s office with an idea. There was a lot of social behavior happening on the web and on Facebook/Whatsapp groups but those platforms weren’t really conducive for it. Rediff.com, for example, hosted a live cricket scoreboard. On that page, conversations were happening among cricket fans despite the fact that the scoreboard would get refreshed every 30 seconds or so. Similarly, there were Facebook posts with photos of Sachin Tendulkar or Salman Khan where thousands of people were commenting with their phone numbers to be added onto a fan Whatsapp group. Once added to the group, there was a constant bombardment of messages with no real conversations happening.

Sharechat’s vision was to build a social network that allowed these users to meet like-minded people, and meaningfully converse and share content with each other in their local languages. Today, Sharechat has 160 million monthly active users and has raised a total of $262 million in funding.

This is lesson number one for anyone looking to build a social company. Identify a large group of users who are interacting with each other (possibly suboptimally), and provide a convenient platform that amplifies and streamlines existing behavior.

Lesson number two is to iterate and iterate fast. Sharechat, for example, replicated what was happening on millions of Whatsapp groups and on web portals onto a mobile platform. Then, they realized that the sheer volume of people entering and leaving groups meant that meaningful conversations couldn’t take place. So, they pivoted to a chatbot model where users could simply go to a joke chatbot or a ‘good morning message’ chatbot and get the content they wanted. Again that didn’t yield the results they were looking for. Finally, they switched to a feed format where users could download and directly share content on Whatsapp and that’s when they really saw an explosion in the number of users on the platform. User feedback loops were important in many ways. For example, more than half of all users selected English as their preferred language but these users had very low engagement levels with the app. The team called up these users only to realize that they didn’t really speak English. They were selecting English because it was aspirational and because they trusted English language apps more. Sharechat then did away with English altogether and stuck only with local languages which drastically improved app usage levels among users.

There are a few factors which give VCs the confidence to invest in a social/content company. The most important of them all is the team and this is lesson number three. Ideally, a young and scrappy team with no baggage on how products should be built is best suited. The core skill sets to build a social/content company are product, design and engineering for the backend. If the founding team has one person for each of these functions then they are well positioned to iterate rapidly based on user insights and behavior and achieve a product-market fit. With a seed cheque of a couple of crores, the company should ideally be able to do 2-3 major and few more minor pivots in a span of 12-15 months.

India has 1.3 billion people and upwards of 500 million smartphone users with access to the internet. For many of these users, the internet is basically Whatsapp, Facebook, and YouTube. But, as users mature in their digital journey, there is a strong need for better products that serve their personal and business requirements. There are many more opportunities to build social network products from India for India and the world. For example, a network for farmers. Farmers want to discuss and get solutions for their crop specific issues like pest attacks, find information about prices in the mandi/market from traders, get weather forecasts, and even share selfies of their bountiful harvest with each other. Today, this happens organically on FB and whatsapp groups. Similarly, microfinance took off in India and the world on the back of a strong community-led lending approach. There is perhaps an opportunity to mimic this social network to keep all its benefits while doing this digitally to increase access and reduce costs drastically. Is there a LinkedIn equivalent for Indian SME owners waiting to be built? Most definitely.

The excitement for social and content startups from India continues to remain high.

This piece is inspired by conversations with Ankush Sachdeva of Sharechat and Madhukar Sinha of India Quotient.

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