For the co-founders of the Koo App—arguably, the hottest thing right now on the Indian Internet space—the last few weeks have been something akin to a rollercoaster ride. The app, which is an Indian version of the microblogging platform, Twitter, albeit, with some very different functions, was launched in March of last year. But it was really in February this year that it found itself in the limelight. After the Indian government’s latest tussle with Twitter, many high profile ministers such as Piyush Goyal and Ravi Shankar Prasad, logged in to Koo, an app which gives users the ability to choose from a wide array of Indian languages. The ministers weren't the only ones who came on to the platform. Bollywood celebrities—such as Ashutosh Rana and Kangana Ranaut—along with popular ex-cricketers like Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath have also signed up. According to the latest estimates, as of February 17, the app had been downloaded more than three million times, and had over one million active users.
Koo, the parent company of which is Bengaluru-based Bombinate Technologies, was co-founded by Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka. The company—which is also behind Vokal, an Indian version of popular question-answer website Quora—recently received funding from former Infosys CFO T.V. Mohandas Pai’s 3one4 Capital.
The app received its initial boost when it emerged as one of the winners of the government’s AtmaNirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge in August 2020. Following this, the app also received a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.
However, ever since its rise to prominence, the app, and its co-founders, have been criticised because of alleged privacy issues, and the fact that one of the investors in the parent company was China-based Shunwei Capital.
In a candid interaction with Fortune India, co-founder Mayank Bidawatka speaks at length about Koo's journey, the development of Koo as a product, the tough microblogging space, privacy, and much more. Edited excerpts.
Where did you get the idea for Koo, and why are you in the microblogging space?
We were basically running a platform called Vokal. This platform, Vokal, is like Quora, but an Indianised version of Quora. Now what happened is this: Data shows that 40% of Google’s searches in India are happening via voice. If you see searches in our vernacular languages, the percentage is even higher, maybe even as high as 70%. These are people who aren’t very comfortable with the keyboard, literally. They have a mike in the smartphone, and they use that, instead, to search for something on Google. Now when the guy is doing that via audio, he probably wants an audio answer. Now this is where we came in. We saw this as a problem statement. We realised we needed something that would give answers to Indians searching for stuff in vernacular languages in a better way. That was Vokal’s problem statement, and it sought to bring subject experts, people with domain expertise, on one platform, where they would answer questions posed by the common man.
Now Vokal is running beautifully today. At this time, we have 30 million-odd monthly users. So while we were running Vokal, we had a lot of these experts saying that you send me questions and I am answering them, but I also want to express myself freely. Look at it this way. I am answering questions on Vokal because there is a trigger from questions. But you have some free thought today about, say, the ongoing farmers' protests. We saw the demand for a platform that cherishes open expression. But this is only part of the story. Twitter is already there as a platform to do that very thing. We went to Twitter to see that these people aren’t really using it, so we asked why? And the answer that we got was that it [Twitter] was not in the local language [which] these people wanted to use to communicate in. [Twitter] is in a language many people aren’t really comfortable with. People kept saying they get lost there, they don’t have that kind of visibility they need. So again we realised some of these problem statements, and which were true for vernacular India, and we realised that there was very little representation of vernacular content on Twitter.
Now Aprameya [the CEO] and me both have been huge fans of Twitter always because it's a great product and it has really democratised voice in the world. And we think that microblogging is a very nice format because it is easy for the creator and it is very crisp to create those thoughts. And it is easy for the consumer also because it requires a very short span of attention. So we said to ourselves that if we do an open expression platform it has to utilise the microblogging platform. But we also said that we won’t be dependent on ONE kind of media and would give equal importance to all kinds of media, be it text or audio, or video, anything. And that is exactly what we set out to do: provide an immersive experience for free expression, without the constraint of language or medium. To set the record straight, we never set out to compete with Twitter, or any such thing. That is how Koo started. We started developing it in the later months of 2019 and launched it at the end of March 2020.
That was an interesting time. With the arrival of the pandemic on the scene, we’ve also seen this huge rise of digitalisation, of people, and businesses, moving online, and the Internet becoming a very important place. So you got the timing absolutely correct.
Yes. but it was just serendipity. These things you can’t plan. And yes, Covid-19 had just hit, people were looking to connect with others, and Koo really took off at that time.
How will you ensure that those who have come into Koo now stay with the app?
Take a look at the numbers to get an idea. We are 1.3 billion people, out of which almost 500 million-600 million [are] Internet users. We will soon get to 850 million-900 million Internet users. And Twitter has about 20 million-30 million users in India. This is a very small number. Largely, educated, English speaking, urban users, use Twitter in India. We wanted to solve the problem for those guys who are not on Twitter. But we do know that there is a huge potential here. What are these people looking for? They are looking to express themselves, they are looking to say something.The other thing they are seeking is to connect with people who are like themselves. I am a journalist, I want to connect with another journalist, I am a politician, I want to connect with another politician. I am a common man, I want to connect with government services or agencies who are available on the app. And the third thing is a little more aspirational. Here people want to connect with a celebrity, or a politician, or an IAS officer. In the aspirational space, people care for the creme-de-la-creme of society joining this app and people want to join because they want to connect with this layer.
In the early days, it was all about creators coming to the platform in Indian languages, and then we had launched in Kannada first. So then these creators were coming in to create content and maintain camaraderie with like-minded people. How has that changed over a period of time? You are now seeing an influx of other languages, people from other languages coming in. A whole lot of English users from Twitter have come in. See, overall, Koo is a new way of expressing yourself. We have a bunch of features that aren’t available on Twitter. We are still a small team. Twitter might have a few thousand people, but we are a team of 40. In that way, we [face a ] resource crunch. So crisp answer to your question: will the growth slow down? No. Is there a large potential? Yes. And this potential is outside of the base that Twitter has in India today. How has the growth been? Exponential. It has gone into the hockey stick zone. Why? Because we are seeing a lot of celebrities joining the platform, and this in itself is bringing a whole lot of people into Koo.
What are the priority areas in the app that you are looking at right now?
See, what basically has happened on the app side is that we have a fully functioning product, but any app that suddenly gets a deluge of people, has sudden tech issues. So now we are spending our time solving bugs we were aware of before, but these have suddenly accelerated and are annoying users, throwing up performance issues which we need to fix. So the product that you see today is like a bit of a toned down version of what it was a month back. Because then it was handling a smaller base of users and was working beautifully. But when you have a deluge, you have to take certain calls tech wise. Like, lets reduce the size of the image, lets reduce the quality of the image, lets reduce XYZ so we can handle the performance. It wasn’t that it was an incomplete product or something.
There are lots of unique Indian problem statements. As I said in the opening, Koo never started by saying, 'Hey Twitter is a big company, let's compete with them and replicate that in India'. The problem statement was different: Massive demography, but very little representation on the microblogging space. For anyone trying to do something in India, they have to first find a problem statement relevant to India and there are lots of them because we are a huge country. We have certain patterns and realities that people in other parts of the world don’t have. And the government will understand it if it has a large enough problem statement. We weren’t selected because we created something like Twitter. They could understand that what we were trying to solve was something for India on a much, much larger scale.Mayank Bidwatka, co-founder, Koo App.
Koo isn’t the only app in the microblogging space.There is Tooter and many others. A year or so ago, we had seen a similar rise of a microblogging platform called Mastodon, but it didn't sustain. Why did that happen, and what did they do wrong, and what is Koo doing right that will ensure your longevity?
Most of these Internet businesses, they are usually very very defensible. So the question is why isn't there not another Airbnb, why isn’t there another Uber, etc? Why is that there is just that one guy in the market? These businesses are usually a winner-takes-it-all market and are network businesses. So you first have to get supply, and the supply won’t come till users come. And users won’t come till supply comes. So you see it's a weird chicken-and-egg scenario. Aprameya and I have been running network businesses since the last decade or so. And we know how to crack a chicken-and-egg problem, who comes first, how do you make them come, what are their incentives, what are they looking for, how do you build a product that delivers those experiences.
I don’t want to comment on other apps, but we’ve seen what they have been doing. And it is not a step in the right direction, this much I can vouch for. For example, you cannot possibly launch a microblog and say the Prime Minister is on your app and just show his tweets! It doesn’t work like that. That is manipulation, its misrepresentation, and it is unfair. Because if I do that with your profile, and there is a user who comes in and sees what you're saying and doesn’t like that. Now you can’t answer that person because you’re not in the app to begin with. So when you do hacks like that, it just doesn’t matter, it will never work. You can’t just copy something and put it into something. I can’t just copy Airbnb’s listings and say I am as good as them. There is a process in all this, and most importantly there is the issue of trust. Koo is working splendidly because it delivers a certain promise to its users.
Big tech companies have had their share of controversies in India. Before the ongoing Twitter controversy, there was the Google-Paytm spat. Besides, if you look at the way Big Tech has worked even in the U.S., you’ll see that even there they are not without their share of controversies, like the recent antitrust case against Google. But then, at the same time, Big Tech has integrated itself so much into a consumer’s life, that it has become difficult to extricate oneself from it. Will that be a matter of concern for Koo?
What we have done is that, when you join and choose a particular language, you are shown a whole lot of people you can follow. There are people on the platform who have got more followers in five days here than they did in the entire time of being on Twitter. Is there a reason why that guy will leave? There is no reason. There is a big Bollywood celebrity who has millions of fans on Twitter. His daily run of followers on Koo is 10X to 15X than what it was on Twitter. Which means he will beat that fan following he has on Twitter on Koo in less than a year. When that happens, you have basically created a network that is driving a lot of value to the people who really matter. But Koo has another advantage. This celebrity’s fans on Twitter are largely restricted to the English- speaking crowd. On Koo, he has fans spread across languages and demography. Just look at the fact: there is a reason Bollywood makes movies in Hindi and not in English, it is not that actors don’t know English.
The answer lies with the masses. That's who you need to cater to, and that's what is not being catered to on Twitter because the user is not on Twitter. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, who is loved by so many, has 20 million-30 million-odd followers on Twitter, but whereas his actual fan base is much larger. How many love the Prime Minister, it should not have been 50 million here, but 500 million. That's the value that we deliver. We have very easy categorisation of different kinds of people. These categories make it very easy for other people to follow you. On Twitter I have to go and search for your name. Here it isn’t the case. Those who are interested in journalists, will very easily be able to find you because of these categories.
The Koo app is a product of the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat policy. How can other startups benefit from this scheme?
There are lots of unique Indian problem statements. As I said in the opening, Koo never started by saying, 'Hey Twitter is a big company, let's compete with them and replicate that in India'. The problem statement was different: Massive demography, but very little representation on the microblogging space. For anyone trying to do something in India, they have to first find a problem statement relevant to India and there are lots of them because we are a huge country. We have certain patterns and realities that people in other parts of the world don’t have. And the government will understand it if it has a large enough problem statement. We weren’t selected because we created something like Twitter. They could understand that what we were trying to solve was something for India on a much, much larger scale. So first, you’ll need that problem statement, and then comes the convincing part. You need to have domain expertise, knowledge of the business you’re getting into, and the ways and means to navigate yourself through that business. Because setting up a business will mean facing a lot of hurdles; so you need to know how to overcome them.
One of the big news points throughout the last couple of weeks has been devoted to privacy concerns around Koo. How are you trying to navigate through it?
It's very simple. I am given your profile page, you say your name is Arnav, you’re given a host of options—marital status, date of birth, occupation, etc.. These are my details that I am happy to give to the public. These are optional information; you can choose to not give these. But you do. And the other user, if you choose to give this information, will be able to see it. It's called a profile page for a reason. There is another key point here: We have mobile number verification. Now we could have had email verification on Day One, it doesn’t cost us to do that. But because of the problem statement that we were going after, and we have a lot of vernacular users, now you tell me what will they use more? Email or mobile? Obviously mobile.
It’s called a profile page, it's not called a data leak. Also because of the background with Vokal, we had many requests from users asking us to allow them to feed their email feature so that those using Koo for business could provide their email information and it would be visible on the profile page. This email id, the intent was to make it public. It was not made public because this feature itself was so recent. I empathise with everyone’s concerns it is not easy to run a platform. You make five friends, you make 20 enemies. When you climb up a ladder, there will be 100 different guys who will try to pull you down. We didn’t have the time to launch it on the app and say let's show all this data because we had to take care of other structural priorities. But when someone says it's a data leak, it is not a data leak, you entered the details on the profile page. It's called you sharing details with someone else, right? Someone made a big deal out of this. We have gone and clarified ourselves. And frankly, no one has been able to get through to our systems. We are working with all the right intent, we are working with some of the best ethical hackers in the country. We’re making sure our systems are in place. Besides, security isn’t something you say we’ll accomplish this in seven days, and that’s it. It is an evolving issue, you have to keep studying it.
A few weeks ago, there was this controversy over China-based Shunwei’s investment in Koo. What happened?
Vokal raised money from some investors, around two-and-a-half years ago This way before the Chinese issue even came up. And Shunwei, the investor, has invested in a lot of content companies, and they are a very well-known and respected company. In our company, they had a minority holding, a single-digit holding... Sometime last year is when this ban on Chinese products etc., happened. And Koo was created sometime last year. Shunwei understands what is happening in the country and that it is an unfortunate turn of events. And they are willing to move out of our company. And a whole lot of Indian investors are going to come in to fill that void. We’ll conclude the process in a couple of days or weeks at max. Koo has raised funds, because it is a second product of the company, raised funds just for itself. We are on a Series A for Koo. And that's $4.1 million.
Who are the other investors?
Kalaari Capital is part of it. We have 3one4 Capital. Then, there is Blume Ventures and Dream Incubator and Accel.
You have been in the limelight lately. What has the learning curve been like?
I’ll be frank with you. We are both very middle-class people. That has been our upbringing. And the key tenets [on] which we run our lives and our business is that if we work hard, everything will fall in place. There will be people who will say things. They might not have perspective, but they might have ill intent. We don’t care about it. Our job is to cater to the users in the best way possible. If you cater to your users and do what is best for them, what anyone else says, it just doesn’t matter. You need to have a good and a high moral compass. In fact, we even say that if we have done something wrong, or it has created a mess, we are mature enough to say we could have done this better, and we apologise for it. That moment hasn’t come. But we will never ever back out from saying stuff like that. We know what is true, and what is untrue. If you are looking at something that is untrue, we are happy to clarify.