Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka, co-founders of Indian social networking platform Koo, seen as a Twitter competitor talk about the platform and clear the air on controversies surrounding it.
In this edition of Startup Talk, Financial Express Online speaks to the co-founders of Koo, an Indian microblogging platform that’s been the talk of the town. Koo has been less than a year in the making, having been floated in May 2020, but it has already got on board around 4.2 million users. A large chunk of those users came on board in the past month after the Indian government, select ministries, ministers, and celebrities began to endorse the platform by coming on board.
In this conversation, Aprameya Radhakrishna, who earlier co-founded the cab-hailing company TaxiforSure and was one of the winners of the Atmanirbhar Bharat app innovation challenge last year and his co-founder Mayank Bidawatka talk about the journey of setting up Koo.
Koo is tapping into a huge emerging opportunity in regional language social networking in India – but it’s not alone, there are the likes of Tooter, Namaste Bharat, Elyments, and more. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Startup Talk with Koo Co-Founders Aprameya and Mayank
FE: Why the name Koo?
Aprameya: When we started thinking about giving a voice to everybody in India, irrespective of language, the first thought that came was what’s an emotional creature that defines the sense of spreading a message. Obviously, a bird comes to mind. We wanted it to be a happy bird, that’s why we gave it a yellow colour. A yellow bird is a happy bird spreading good messages among the community in India. The word Koo is a sweet sound that the bird makes.
We actually first thought of “Koohoo” but it wasn’t so easy to say every time. So we said let’s cut it short and say Koo, which is easier to say. Basically, that’s the origin of the logo, the name, and the colour of the bird.
You are a fairly new platform that has been in the making for less than a year now. To get this kind of traction in this short period of time is quite something. Didn’t you experiment with another vernacular language platform before this? Vokal. How did the transition to Koo come about?
Mayank: So Vokal is basically still catering to the opportunity of vernacular India. It’s a question-and-answer platform, where the answers are given in audio or video by people with domain expertise. It deals with experts. That has a lot of traction as well. We’ve crossed 25 million monthly users. A lot of the experts on the platform expressed their interest in open expression, which means that they wanted to share their thoughts with their followers without the trigger of having been asked a question. That’s when we started thinking about open-expression platforms. And one of the best methods to enable that is microblogging because it is easy for the creator to create quick crisp thoughts. And it’s easy for the consumer who has a low span of attention.
That’s when we started studying what’s happening in Indian languages on existing microblogs of the world. We studied Twitter and we realised that there is very little creation of content available in Indian languages. The truth of our country is that we are the only country that has the kind of language diversity that we have. We have over 50 languages with more than one million users. And when we studied what’s happening on Twitter, we realised that there is very little content in these languages. And that is probably because that product was created for a global audience, for global languages. India needs the Indianisation of microblogging for it to become relevant for this country.
FE: How are you dealing with the imagery around Koo? In the past week, you have seen a huge surge in numbers to 4.2 million downloads now, from a week ago when you were at three million. However, there’s a whole narrative that Koo is a government mouthpiece and there’s not much independence on the platform compared to other microblogging sites. How are you dealing with that?
Aprameya: For us, we want to make sure that everybody gets a voice. Our technology and our product does not understand any kind of political leaning. Both of us as founders are extremely apolitical. People who know me in Bengaluru, know me as an entrepreneur, technologist, and product guy. We are busy dreaming about the future. Anything for the development of the country is what we are pro-for. While there might be added colour for various reasons over a period of time the platform itself will speak for itself. Everybody will come.
FE: At the moment, it’s looking a little one-sided. A lot of the ministries are already on Koo and are also making Koo the first place on which they disseminate information before it gets on to Twitter, which works in your favour. What do celebrity endorsements really do for Koo? You have the likes of Anupam Kher, Ravishankar Prasad and others, including some controversial celebrities. What does it do for your image?
Aprameya: Every person in India follows different interests. The biggest interests are politics, cricket, Bollywood, other film industries and local issues. So, Koo is a place where India can unite and talk to each other on various things. It doesn’t have to be just politics. The government announcements on Koo are relevant to the broader audience. The English-speaking audience may see it once in a while, but the broader audience is waiting for announcements from the government. They are the ones who truly want to engage with the government and make their lives better.
Our vision is to enable the voice of India across languages. If Koo can take direct messages from the government to the users, that’s great. If we can take direct messages from cricketers to the broader audience that’s great. If it can take direct messages from celebrities that they follow it’s great. So, this is something that has not happened before. We have only seen the top one percent engaging with the celebrities that they follow. Now we are giving 100 percent of India the power to follow who they like.
FE: While the audience is bound to follow, at some point the critics will also come on board. And then you’ll have arguments. How will you deal with that?
Aprameya: Actually, not at all. I’ll tell you one more thing. The English-speaking audience is (perceived to be) slightly more educated at this moment. Everybody feels like they know everything. All of us go and argue at some point because I have my own logic and opinion. Those conversations are very engaging. That’s just one side.
The broader audience of India is actually a lot more accepting and appreciating of other people’s efforts. That mood of India, which is not captured on an English platform, will come out on Koo. We have made subtle changes in the product which say “Be kind” when creating a Koo. A small statement like that will make people who are coming to abuse someone to tone it down. If 100 people were coming to abuse, some 50 people may say they don’t want to say it anymore.
FE: But how are you technically set up to deal with trolling that will follow at some point? How will you deal with requests from the government or others to block certain accounts?
Aprameya: I’ll just take this one. When it comes to certain things like harm to life or there is community violence that can be generated because of something that someone said – we are a company that is registered in India and bound by law. Nobody wants anyone to die because of something that someone said. We respect the value of life in India.
If it’s just an opinion and you are having a healthy conversation, that’s what we want on the platform. Healthy discussions are what we want on the platform. If it happens, depending on the severity of what will happen offline, we will have to abide by the law of the land – not a particular political party or anything like that. There will always be a voted-in government. We are a democracy. We will be guided by that one government to abide by the law. We won’t take against law decisions at any point in time.
FE: You are a company registered in India, but there was a narrative, some of which was also fake, about your registration, about your investors and then there were insinuations about a data leak. How do you handle this?
Aprameya: I think as many people want you to succeed, some people don’t want you to succeed as well. We are registered in India, our servers are in India, and we are Indian founders. Yes, we had raised a small amount of money from Shunwei Capital two years ago when Koo didn’t even exist. It was in Vokal as a platform – there are Chinese investors in so many companies still in India. That’s the past. We can’t predict the future. We had taken some investment.
Now, given the scenario of how Koo is and we understand the sensibilities, the Chinese investor has also politely agreed to exit.
FE: Who is buying out Shunwei’s stake in Koo?
Aprameya: A lot of Indian investors.
Let’s just talk of your investments for a moment. You have raised $4.1 million from 3one4 Capital, Accel, Kalari, Blume Ventures and Dream. How do you plan to use this investment?
Mayank: Largely, we will be investing in the product and we will be investing heavily in vernacular languages and bringing technology on the platform.
FE: How do you plan to monetise the platform?
Mayank: There are various ways in which you can monetise a vibrant platform like Koo. The future for Koo is not going to be exactly like what you have seen happening on Twitter. It’s going to be a different audience. It’s going to be a much larger audience. Like I said before, the Indian internet user base is going to hit 850 million users. A large part of these users – about 75 percent of them – will be vernacular. Our internet user base is going to be double that of the United States. We are going to be the second-largest internet population in the world. So, the scale that we are going to deal with is going to be very different from the scale that other folks have.
Advertising is a clear path to making revenues at scale. But we have lots of other ideas that we are not really ready to talk about right now as far as monetisation is concerned. There are a lot of parties that benefit from a platform like Koo – whether it’s businesses, institutions, creators, or others. They would like to get some traction from users and from each of these interlinkages revenues can be generated.
FE: What about global ambitions then? Do you think you can get into the global space?
Aprameya: Absolutely. First, we want to go deeper into India as that has so far not been cracked. As we said the voice of India, irrespective of what language you speak is our first primary goal. In that process, once we get a hang of that, we would like to go to countries that have a primarily non-English speaking population. That’s what we are doing in India and we want to take that playbook elsewhere. Once we’re done with non-English speaking countries, we will look at English-speaking countries as well. It’s a step-by-step process. We want to do it one-by-one and not get too distracted.
FE: What about data privacy policies? Right now, since it’s largely India-oriented, we don’t have a data law yet. When you take it to Europe or elsewhere, you will have to be compliant with the GDPR. How ready are you?
Mayank: You are right, we need to be compliant with GDPR, which is why we are not in Europe yet. We have got a lot of interest from the diaspora there, and as tempting as it is, we have not opened it up there. As soon as we are compliant we will. We have technology to ensure data privacy for security. At no point of time does the app ask for permissions that are not being used for the benefit of the user.
If we are asking you for the location of the app on some screen, we are asking you for that so that we can give you more localised content. We can show you people from that area. We can show you people from that city. If we ask for camera access, we are asking for it so that you can record a video Koo. We have built the product keeping ourselves in mind. Anything that we wouldn’t like done to us has not been done on the app. We are consumers of internet products ourselves. We have a good moral compass. We would not do something that would annoy a user for the company to generate revenues.
FE: Is it possible to have two Koo accounts with the same phone number?
Mayank: It will allow you to have another account on the same phone, but you will need another phone number or an email ID.
A big problem that Facebook, Twitter and large social networking sites have is fake news. How do you plan to dig out fake news from your platform?
Mayank: I think this is one of those topics that falls in the grey area. I think a lot of policies are yet to be put in place as far as social media is concerned. Because unlike publishers, this is not curated content. If this was a simple question we won’t be discussing it. We would have answers for it. The global platform would have had answers for it. We are dealing with social media, which means we are dealing with a space where people have the freedom to express themselves and there will be unscrupulous elements which will plug in some sort of fake news on a platform waiting for it to explode.
Having said that, there are technologies that are available. There are service providers that are now going back to the source of the news and trying to figure out where this came from. I think another very important topic is validating the authenticity of an account. We are able to do a lot of these things online because I don’t know who you are and you have no idea who I am. It’s why we have trolling. People are able to get behind a mask and say what they want. I don’t see that happening in the offline world.
FE: Then how do you plan to address privacy concerns?
Mayank: I’m happy to clarify that. I think what was spoken of was about someone displaying information that they wanted to display to a user. Let’s understand that with an example. I’m saying my name is Mayank, I’m a male, I’m married, I was born on 10 January 1981, here’s my Facebook link, here’s my LinkedIn, my Twitter and here’s my Email ID in case you want to reach out to me. I’m giving it to you.
FE: Are you saying all that data was voluntary?
Mayank: Yes, that was not a data breach. That was me deciding to share that information with you and it is optional information that is available. Some of these things are still under product development, which is why we haven’t opened up some of this information on the Web.
We are a very young startup which has close to 40 people working in the team as opposed to Twitter which has 4,000 plus employees. We have tried to achieve something within eight months as opposed to doing something in 15 years. If you get that perspective you will understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Koo. There has been no data breach. What’s happened was someone tried to talk about something that got blown out of proportion. Why? Because like Aprameya said – you are doing well and going against a large whale – there are enough people on the other side waiting to drag you down.
Aprameya: We are such a young startup that it’s almost like a reality show. It’s 10 months old and while we are building, we have everyone watching. It’s quite exciting. What we would like is for everybody to join us. Here’s an opportunity for India to build a startup together. If you have never built a startup before, please come. Come join us, let’s build this together.
FE: What element of luck did you have in this whole journey?
Aprameya: When I built TaxiForSure, the company name was Serendipity Infolabs. Serendipity is what we believe in. In life, you keep working hard. You keep working hard because you never know when the stars align. Serendipity plays a big role in making people or breaking people. We were doing the right things with the right intent and opportunities fell in our lap. We are truly lucky to be here. Our job is to ensure that we can build this Indian story of being self-reliant even in the digital space. We hope that there are at least 100 more companies that come up, not just replacing global giants, but also build unique stories for India. We have the potential to build unique social networks for India as well.