Breaking Barriers

Indian language social media platform ShareChat is making waves.

Co-founders Bhanu Pratap Singh, Farid Ahsan, Ankush Sachdeva (Photograph by Reuben Singh) Co-founders Bhanu Pratap Singh, Farid Ahsan, Ankush Sachdeva (Photograph by Reuben Singh)

There is a reason why the entity that owns the vernacular social media app, ShareChat, is called Mohalla Tech Private Ltd. Ankush Sachdeva, Farid Ahsan and Bhanu Pratap Singh were studying at IIT-Kanpur when, at Yahoo Hack U, a hackathon event, they discovered their love for building products. They worked on 13 products from their dorms. The first was a real estate portal, similar to The name, Mohalla, comes from there, and although the portal and the dozen products that followed didn't go anywhere, the founders stuck with the name. ShareChat, their 14th, came in 2015 and is probably their coolest. Also, the most successful, thus far.

The social media company has around 25 million monthly active users, growing at 20 per cent a month. If you download the app and browse through it, you will see users in Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, Odia, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Haryanvi and Rajasthani posting good morning and romantic messages, jokes, religious photographs, and those of their favourite actresses, sports stars, bikes, cars. Even short videos.

The start-up's growing popularity has attracted venture capital. It is probably one of the best funded regional language start-ups - recently, it raised nearly $100 million from Shunwei Capital, Morningside Ventures and Jesmond Holdings, among others. It had earlier raised $22 million in two rounds from Xiaomi, SAIF Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and India Quotient. Investors have noticed the differentiation.

The idea appears a vernacular version of Facebook but there is a difference - Facebook is about real friends while ShareChat is a one-to-many content broadcasting platform where people share content with strangers. One can, however, share the content one posts with friends on WhatsApp.

"If you think of the time people spend on apps, all of them are competing with us," says Sachdeva. "However, most apps are either video or news apps. We are different. Most of our content is images and trending content. About 99 per cent is user-generated."

At present, Putin's visit to India is trending. It is more about opinion. Similarly, users have caught on to the Pro Kabaddi League. For Bangla users, Durga Puja is trending.

Regional language Internet is the next big thing as the English language Internet is probably saturating in India. As of December 2017, there were 481 million Internet users in India. However, according to a KPMG report, there are over 500 million Hindi language speakers and another 500 million regional language speakers in the country. The potential non-Internet users of today who would join the Web, going ahead, could prefer content in Indian languages.

How does ShareChat plan to monetise this coming wave of new users? It is working on a two-fold plan. "The most obvious way would be advertisements. The digital marketing spend, overall, is increasing. However, there are other interesting avenues, such as micro transactions," says Sachdeva. ShareChat may also build mini-apps within the larger app - those that sell horoscopes for Rs 5, or those that help users fill a government job application form.

"We dont have a timeline on that. We will probably think about it in a year," says the co-founder. "We will build a few apps ourselves but eventually the goal is to build a developer platform."

Meanwhile, users have started doing business through the app. There are people who post catalogues with phone numbers. These include owners of jewellery stores and suit makers. In Kerala, a few sell houseboat rentals.

The founders are neither encouraging nor discouraging this at the moment. Like investors, they are watching the company grow.