Dear Indian App Developers, Patriotism Is Fine But Don't Be Complacent

The ban on Chinese apps is temporary and out there, Western companies are encircling the Indian market, just like sharks do before attacking

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The date June 29, 2020 will be remembered by Indians, and more so by the Indian app developers and entrepreneurs not because we were amid a global pandemic but because in an unprecedented move the government of India banned 59 Chinese apps including widely popular short video app Tiktok. The government reasoned the ban stating that these apps were, “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.  Apart from Tiktok, Camscanner, WeChat were other apps that enjoyed a massive popularity among Indians but were banned as well. A month later, the government took down another 47 China-origin apps claiming that these apps were clones of the earlier banned 59 apps.

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Two months later, i.e., in September the government further dropped 118 more Chinese apps which mostly consist of games and beauty apps. One of the widely popular games PUBG, too, couldn’t escape the government’s wrath.

A total of 224 Chinese apps being banned by the Indian government was a watershed moment for Indian app developers who saw a gargantuan sized market share available up for grab that the Chinese predominantly enjoyed.

Simultaneously, Indian influencers and gamers were too left in a lurch, forcing them to look at other options. They flocked to Indian built apps and helped these developers see download numbers which they could have only seen after three-four years, if at all.

However, this overnight shot to fame, because of a government’s move should not blind these Indian app developers from seeing the reality. This chapter for Indian app developers should not close early with a short-lived success story, only because of lack of innovation or a will to do something out of the box. Experts believe that the ban on these Chinese apps are temporary and out there, western companies are encircling the Indian market, just like sharks do before attacking.

Need For Better User Experience

When Tiktok was banned, Indian app developers rode on the anti-Chinese sentiments for several weeks. Short-video apps such as Mitron, Chingari, Trell, and others mentioned that they are “made in India” apps on the Google Play Store.

Certainly, these apps witnessed a three-four times growth overnight after the ban, and also brought attention from a few investors. However, these apps can no longer rely on patriotism to build their businesses. They have to provide a better user experience and a stable application to keep rising upon their existing users and attract more.

Crashing of apps, high Internet consumption, buffering of videos are few of the most common issues that can easily spoil a user’s experience forcing him to switch. If one scrolls down the comment section of these apps on Google Play Store, users are complaining about the above mentioned problems along with some other bugs.

In July, an ethical hacker hacked the Chingari app and revealed how easily one could get access and take over any user’s account. In response, Chingari pushed updates with security patches on both iOS and Android. Mitron was once taken down from Google Play store for violating its policies. 

Anuj Garg, co-founder and chief executive officer of Say Namaste (Inscripts), said to put together a concept of proof is easy but to build something at scale is difficult.

He said, “Any developer can build a Twitter like software, but the real challenge is to provide a seamless experience of Twitter to such a large user base while protecting privacy.”

Indian app developers need to double down on their backend and frontend to provide a seamless experience to users. They need to hire more talent and experts to scale their business accordingly.

Because if they don’t, users will find a better alternative. According to a survey conducted by YouGov in early August, though Indians were keen to join TikTok’s alternatives that are either Indian or non-Chinese, but a  large majority, 63 per cent, of urban Indians favour (strongly or somewhat) the ban on TikTok to be revoked. Possibly because of the user experience it provided.

Need To Evolve And Not Be Complacent

One thing that History has taught us in the field of business is you can’t keep selling the same product to your customers and expect to grow. Customers can be loyal but not fools. Companies have to keep an eye on the ongoing trend, what their rivals are doing, and what the current situation is asking for. They need to predict and be spontaneous to jump upon an opportunity, and change its course of action accordingly. 

Charles Darwin had once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

One classic example of failing to adapt would be Microsoft’s Skype. A widely popular video conferencing app used for conducting meetings. Launched in 2003, when most of the world still  unheard of video call and only believed it can happen in sci-fi movies, Skype made it a reality, by providing a new way to communicate. Skype was hailed as a forward thinker. However, now when the world is depending on video conferencing, Skype is simply replaced by a nine-year-old company Zoom Video Communications. Microsoft failed to predict, innovate, and adapt to changes.

Another popular example would be Orkut. The site was shut down because its competitor  Facebook continued to evolve, by providing new options, services, thus pulling more crowd towards it.

Indian app developers have the opportunity to innovate, evolve and attract more users as the whole world will continue to watch them. Indian app developers have a huge market in front of them, and if planned well, India can see more startups turning into Unicorns in a short duration of time.

Foreign Companies and Return of Banned Apps

Indian app developers believe that both TikTok and PUBG are likely to return in India and get their followers/users back. Multiple reports suggest that the parent company of both these apps are either severing their Chinese ties or ready to sell their Indian operations to an Indian company. For instance, multiple reports have surfaced that Tiktok’s parent company ByteDance is in talks to sell its Indian operation to Mukesh Ambani.

At the same time, PUBG’s South Korean parent company has recently announced that it’s withdrawing its publishing rights from Chinese company Tencent and will handle it on its own for India. If TikTok’s Indian operation is sold to an Indian company and PUBG cordially works with the government, then there is no way to stop these companies from returning to India. These companies will again start dominating in their respecting spaces.

One of the major companies that cashed in at the right time to swarm away TikTok’s users is Facebook owned Instagram. Instagram which already has witnessed a significant rise in users particularly in India, launched Reels, a similar short-video platform. The reason it became an instant hit among Indians and also attracted almost all the popular celebrities and influencers is because of its massive user base and reach. Most of the TikTok video makers already had an account on Instagram.

Youtube, another multi-billion dollar company owned by Google, closely following the Indian market launched Youtube Shorts, where users can upload a 15-second short video with a multi-segment camera, similar to TikTok. Users will enjoy the company’s large library of songs to make content for their viewers.

Lack Of Funds

It's true that soon after the Chinese apps were banned, Indian apps raised some funds. For instance, Trell raised $11.4 million, Mitron bagged $5 million, and Chingari picked an undisclosed amount from foreign entrepreneurs. Even in Indian gaming platform Winzo too raised  $18 million in Series B round.

The amount of funding raised by Indian apps is puny when compared to foreign companies. For instance, according to Crunchbase, Tiktok’s parent company Bytedance  has raised at least $7.4 billion in total from marquee investors such as Tiger Global, Sequoia Capital China, General Atlantic, and Softbank. Musical.ly had raised $133.5 million in its Series C round before it was merged with Bytedance and renamed as TikTok

Siddarth Pai of 3One4 Capital, said, “Most of the foreign apps that come into India do so when they have built up strong systems and processes, established themselves in their home-markets and raised large amounts of capital that enable them to expand. So the battle isn’t one of equals—it’s a minnow-vs-whale battle from day 1 for the Indian app developers. The rounds of funding are also magnitudes apart because while those larger giants have raised capital from their home-grown funds, Indian capital investment into its startups is a paltry 10 per cent of the total capital raised by them. The lack of domestic capital cannot be understated as it hampers their ability to scale and expand. In spite of these, Indian startups can and have held their own against the larger giants across categories.”

Taking the example of PUBG, Pavan Nanda, chief executive officer and founder of Winzo Games, during a webinar organized by Entrepreneur India, said, “Bluehole worked with 1,000 developers for two years to deliver PUBG with a risk that the game could totally bomb. I am sure from a skill standpoint and talent standpoint India is not far behind. If we give infinite time, infinite chances, and infinite pool of capital we will definitely be able to deliver something like Pubg. But do we have the resources?”

However, Sanjeev Bikchandani, co-founder of Infodge, said, “There is enough capital in India for early-stage startups which will support these Indian entrepreneurs in scaling products across the country if the product is solving a real problem. Therefore, we believe that Indian entrepreneurs can build globally competitive products for Indian users and possibly for global users. We already have examples of successful Indian companies like Zomato and Zoho and others that have built great products for the global market."

What Can Indian Developers Do

According to Garg, to tap the market, Indian app developers need to have an in-depth insight into the human mind. Again taking the example of Twitter he said that Jack Dorsey launched the micro-blogging site even when Facebook and Internet blogs existed.

Pai said, “The foremost thought on the mind of all Indian app developers is to create a unique means of engagement that resonates strongly with the Indian mindset, thus increasing retention. This shows the deep understanding of the Indian consumer, which will be their most formidable moat.”

TikTok is a giant with an inordinate amount of capital at its disposal; for the Indian app developer, this is a David-vs-Goliath battle. They need to mature into finding their USP or niche that will enable them to grow larger, raise capital and then compete with TikTok. The Indian market is large enough to accommodate multiple players in multiple niches—the importance of carving that niche is at an all time high for these apps, added Pai.

“Indian entrepreneurs are closer to the problems that they are solving viz-à-viz their foreign counterparts building for India. Hence, the founders can build the right products utilizing those deep customer insights rather than copy-pasting what is working elsewhere,” said Bikhchandani.