The story of Mitron: How the makers braved the odds to give India its own TikTok rival

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Updated: May 18, 2021 3:05 PM

From having to deal with non-transparent Google policies, to issues of purported links with Pakistan, Mitron has been controversy’s own child. It is time to set the record straight.  

Mitron, Mitron app, Mitron TV, Make in IndiaThe story of Mitron. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

“Mitron started with the idea of providing an Indian social platform for the Indian consumer, and to establish Indian app space in the large short-video entertainment ecosystem,” Shivank Agarwal, CEO and Co-founder, Mitron TV tells Financial Express Online in an exclusive interview. Shivank, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, launched Mitron along with former Makemytrip colleague, Anish Khandelwal in April 2020. What started as a 2-member team is now 40-member strong and growing.

You can say the same about Mitron, the app as well.

The journey, though it was surreal, has been far from picture perfect. Shivank and Co., have had a lot on their plates—and this includes a long list of controversies. Right from its purported origins that linked it to Pakistan, to functional similarities with TikTok, to it being pulled down from the Google Play Store, Mitron seems to have seen it all in a very short span of time. And yet, it has championed on with a vision that has been dead-set on one goal. That, “Indian consumers should be served by Indian platforms, and Indian data should always be secured on Indian servers.”

We’re well into Mitron 2.0 as we speak. The makers have raised a funding of $5 million from Nexus Venture Partners and others, signed a licensing deal with Zee Music Company, and also launched Atmanirbhar Apps, a discovery platform for Indian apps. But are they also well past the controversies? It is time to set the record straight once and for all. Excerpts.

Can you tell us something about yourself and how Mitron was conceived?

I did my graduation in 2011 from IIT Roorkee in Computer Science. I met Anish during my stint with Makemytrip in 2016. Since then, Anish and I have been working together on different projects. We launched Mitron TV on April 11, 2020. Our aim was to create a mobile-focused content generation and consumption application. The idea of ‘Mitron’ got even stronger during the initial days of the (coronavirus) lockdown where many of us were finding ways to be connected with our loved ones and be engaged through various skills.

We received an overwhelming response immediately after our launch. From a 2-member team in April, we have now grown to a 40-member team. Currently we have 3 major departments, namely, tech and product, marketing and operations. Recently we have bolstered our senior leadership team by bringing onboard ex-OLX executive Chandan Chhabra, as VP- Operations of Mitron; Nisha Pokhriyal, who served as Associate Director, VMate has also joined the Mitron family as VP-Marketing; Ex ByteDance executive Shyamanga Barooah as Head of Content Strategy and senior journalist Biswarup Gooptu, who spent 10 years at The Economic Times, as Head of Partnerships & Policy.

Mitron, now in its version 2.0, also offers an enhanced user experience over its earlier version. Our focus is to continue to make rapid strides in innovation and technology.

Mitron has often been called a ‘desi’ TikTok alternative. The apps share many core functionalities. What do you have to say about those comparisons?

The sentiments have been mixed, however a majority of the time, they have been positive and encouraging. We would not deny the fact that we have been compared to TikTok like all the other applications in the space. But that goes for every business/service.

How is Mitron different from TikTok?

Whilst there are a lot of players in the market who are focused on entertainment videos, we saw a lot of potential in providing non-entertainment content as well. Apart from entertainment, we also have opinion videos where people talk about their views on different trending topics. Mitron has created over 15 content categories, which allows users to browse content based on their choice. This has increased community engagement.

Mitron is a creator agnostic platform, giving opportunities to various talents to showcase their skills. We want to build a platform for micro-entrepreneurs where they can monetize as well as learn. We are putting major efforts in building local stars. We will be providing various collaborative opportunities for their growth via engaged communities of followers and brands.

Is Mitron—friends in Hindi—name inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

It is definitely inspired by his frequent use of the word. However, there were a lot of other factors that came into play. For instance, we wanted a name that signifies our nation, a social circle as well as aligned with the vision of our country leaders. PM Modi has always addressed the nation with Mitron, signifying friendship and togetherness, which is the exact emotion we want our app to deliver. A platform for one and all and easy to pronounce.

Mitron was riddled with controversy soon after launch. Can you tell us exactly why the app was pulled from the Google Play Store, and how did you come back?

We did not receive any proper communication from Google before they took down our app. We were only sent a standard email after the app was taken down. We got in touch with the Google team and that’s when they informed us that we need to have a proper mechanism to flag content. Subsequently, we built an entire funnel around it.

Secondly, we had to build an exhaustive privacy policy for the app which was lacking until then. We have done VAPT (Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing) for all the existing APIs (data exchange) and made it part of the process for any new development. Additionally, we are building privacy/visibility control for users where they will be able to control the visibility (public/private/friends) of their videos.

So, technically, Google did not follow the right chain of communication? Why did you not speak about it openly?

It was wrong on Google’s part to pull down our app without any prior notice. However, back then we were only a team of two people and we had a lot on our plate. We believed that the correct way to handle the issue was to fix the problem rather than getting into endless procedural details.

Many Indian developers have expressed concern about Google Play Store policies. What do you have to say about that?

Definitely. We would appreciate transparent communication from Google. We want to continue working in good faith. However, it would be difficult to do so without having clear communication.

What is your take on ‘desi’ app stores/discovery platforms?

We are one of the very first players in this domain to be present on Indus OS and Paytm marketplace. We have a very good working relationship with them. In addition, we have recently launched Atmanirbhar Apps, where we are helping people discover Indian applications. We are receiving an exceedingly positive response, with over 75,000 downloads so far. We also firmly believe that instead of competing with each other we should work together to promote Indian applications.

You purchased Mitron’s source code from Pakistan-based software developing company, Qboxus. This raised a lot of concern—and criticism—around the app’s origin, format and functionality. What exactly happened?

We purchased the template from Envato, which is a huge marketplace. Even unicorn companies purchase templates and source code from the same marketplace. In a marketplace, one does not know the developer, as we rely on the quality and trust of the company. We do not know who the end developer is, however we relied on Envato’s guarantee and quality control.

Can you tell us how Mitron is ensuring data privacy for its users?

We have a complete privacy structure in place. As a B2C company, the systems that we use are firewalled, which ensures that the data cannot be accessed from outside. We also have a system in place to disallow any cyber-attack. This means that a third party cannot inject into our database. There are multiple security levels that prohibit any unauthorized data access. There is a two-level authentication and token generation requirement for any access to user data. So even we cannot access data without proper tokens.

We are using Amazon Web Services (AWS) and a separate database player. All our servers, cloud and CDN are Indian.

As you said there are stringent procedures to avoid data misuse. Can users delete all their data and account completely from the servers easily?

Users have to email us for complete removal of their accounts from the database. Users have control of their data and can choose to delete any content uploaded by them.  If any user is continuously violating our content guidelines, we have a provision in place, to delete his or her account permanently.

Can you please elaborate on the content filtering aspect?

We are very diligent when it comes to removing inappropriate content. Whilst we have features that can address issues like nudity, violence inbuilt in our app, we also have a flag option. We take strict notice of any video flagged and immediately remove it from the app. We are constantly working on making our filters better and stronger.

Around 40-50 thousand videos have been flagged by our users as inappropriate content till now. After scrutiny, we realised that 10-15 per cent of those videos violated our community guidelines and they have been removed from the app. We are constantly taking user feedback and working towards improving recommendations as per their preference.

What are your future plans?

We are currently working on creating a sophisticated video editor to enhance the quality of the videos. The second important thing that we are working on is a recommendation video. Also, from the operations side, we are focusing on building a pipeline between brands and creators.

We have set ourselves a 3-month target internally to start monetizing our content. We are already in talks with many brands and we are trying to strike a deal which benefits all the three players, i.e., the brand, us and our influencers. Our plan is to ensure that advertisements will be innovative as they need to integrate the brand’s messaging and influencer’s creativity seamlessly together.

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