Facebook dominates India’s mobile app space. More than 100 million people in the country use its service month, while WhatsApp — the messaging app it bought for $19 billion — has 60 million active users there, and it’s adding 3 million more in India alone per month. Yet, still there are worthy competitors.
Global chat apps Line and WeChat have made some progress since localizing their services in India last year — but it is Hike, an India-made app, that is catching the eye after raising a $65 million round of funding.
Hike has raised a total of $21 million from parent company Bharti SoftBank (BSB) Ventures in the past, but this round is far larger and it sees Tiger Global become its first overseas global investor. The New York-based VC firm is also joining the startup’s board.
Hike currently has 35 million registered users, having added 15 million downloads in the past two months — 90 percent of these users are based in India, and half are active on the service each month. Hike says its users send and receive over 10 billion messages per
day month, and the service is adding more than 300,000 new users each day too.
Some of this momentum may be down to a nationwide TV commercial, aired this summer, which cheekily poked fun at WhatsApp:
Hike’s numbers are some way lower than WhatsApp and others, but the company’s focus on optimizing its service for India could help it attract the attention of more users there. As we said was the case in some parts of Southeast Asia, WhatsApp is not invincible.
Building a platform to the internet
While Hike has some India-centric features, such as password locks for conversations and an SMS-based chat option, it didn’t raise $65 million to play it safe.
Hike founder Kavin Bharti Mittal told TNW in an interview that the next stage is to turn the service from a messaging app into a mobile platform.
“The daily uptake of smartphones is growing in India, but most people go online with a phone that costs $200 or less, which makes lightweight apps like messaging among the most popular. But we believe that messaging can be more, it can be the gateway into the internet — especially for those who are going online for the first time,” he said.
Bharti Mittal, who is the son of telecom magnate Sunil Bharti Mittal, believes Hike can take inspiration from multimedia-focused messaging apps like Line and WeChat, which offer gaming, commerce and more, while tailoring its experience to fit with the needs of Indian mobile users.
“The question is how you build out a platform without screwing up the messaging experience,” he mused.
Tailored to India
Bharti Mittal said his team sticks to a few golden rules at all times. They include maintaining a quality user experience on lower-end devices by keeping the size of the app low, catering to users on prepaid, 2G networks who worry about using data, and keeping the app’s bandwidth low.
Like its peers in the West, Hike has been tinkering with experiments to find the right balance. A recently piloted gaming tab racked up over a million installs within a couple of weeks, while user engagement with coupons that were “buried right inside the app” have indicated a potential for commerce, Bharti Mittal says.
The Hike CEO believes that the answer may be a combination of standalone apps — like Line and WeChat — with some functionality built into the main Hike app itself. With plenty of examples in both the West and East, Hike is likely to keep a keen eye on other players worldwide as it seeks to find the right combination for India.
Targeting 100 million users
The initial aim, Bharti Mittal explained, is to reach 100 million registered users within the next 18 months. For now, that focus is squarely on India, but Hike may look at similar markets, particularly those with a large Indian diaspora, in the future.
As for more TV ads, Bharti Mittal said that with internet penetrations still so low, offline is a key channel to reach new users — but there are no plans for further WhatsApp sledging at this point.