This website requires JavaScript.
Lead Story/Feature

The discreet charm of super apps

China’s WeChat and Alipay, Indonesia’s Go Jek, and Singapore’s Grab are paradigmatic examples of a super app.

Jan 21, 2019 by Moulishree Srivastava
The discreet charm of super apps

Last week, Paytm inched closer to the super app status after the digital wallet firm formed a partnership with Zomato to tack on food delivery service to its platform.

China’s WeChat and Alipay, Indonesia’s Go Jek, and Singapore’s Grab are paradigmatic examples of a super app. India doesn’t have a super app yet. But that might change soon.

Super apps combine a bouquet of services in one platform including (but not limited to) messaging, social media, payment, shopping, entertainment, ride-hailing, food delivery and what have you.

Paytm claims to have around 400 million users. The app offers services like shopping, movie tickets, flight, hotel, and bus bookings, loans, insurance, news, messaging etc around its payment system.

Flipkart’s payments app PhonePe is in the slipstream of Paytm. With 150 million users, the app offers one-stop access to Ola, Grofers, GoIbibo, Oyo, Treebo, Housejoy and AbhiBus services among others.

Unicorns Ola, Swiggy, Zomato, Flipkart and Quikr are also adding more services to their suites while Reliance Jio is building a whole ecosystem to keep the users from leaving its network.

“On the mobile internet, these are the different kingdoms that are being created where companies are trying to ensure that users spend most of the time on their property,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

Meanwhile, a few players like Hike and Tapzo fell by the wayside. Instant messenger Hike was unbundled last year while Amazon Pay acquired app aggregator Tapzo.

Unlike in China, the super apps failed to make inroads into the US. A critical size of online traffic is routed via desktop in the US, limiting the scope of super apps to a large extent.

When it comes to mobile internet and social media, India is, more or less, in lockstep with China. Paytm and PhonePe are trying to emulate the success of WeChat and AliPay. But it’s easier said than done.

Here, we lay out the goldilocks conditions that shape a super app.

Bring’em in

WeChat was developed in three months as a skunkwork project on Tencent's campus with seven engineers under the aegis of founder Zhang Xiaolong. The first version of the world’s largest app with simple messaging and photo sharing features was launched in early 2011. The voice message function was added three months later.

At that time, Tencent’s desktop and mobile communication app QQ had a massive following. WeChat allowed users to sync QQ contacts, racking up 100 million users in 433 days. The payment feature was added when the app crossed 300 million users. In mid-2014, WeChat stores popped up.

“An app needs to have a critical mass of user base, a few tens of millions of downloads at the very least. That’s the first requirement,” said Kolla.

A massive user base for its core service (messaging in WeChat’s case, micro-payments for Paytm) sets the wheels in motion.

“Logically it makes sense. It’s not different from a bank. Once you open your account, then it offers you credit card, home loan, auto loan, wealth management services etc.,” said Rehan Yar Khan, managing partner at Orios Venture Partners. “There's no reason why it should not work.”

Paytm and PhonePe have met the user benchmark. But then again, so did Hike, which claims to have about 150 million users.

Keep’em hooked

In 2011, when WeChat rolled out Message in a Bottle (removed over pornography alarm bells in November 2018), People Nearby and Shake features (to connect with strangers), the app's engagement levels went through the roof. By November 2011, WeChat was clocking 200,000 new users per day.

WeChat started to cash in on the herd mentality. WeChat allows mirroring of contacts- both individual and group - from other apps in order to create a network effect. Users tend to stick to platforms which encourage networking and a sense of belonging.

“You need to have a high level of engagement. The app needs to be used at least a couple of times a day for that mind share to be built. Hike, for instance, didn’t have the engagement metric going for it,” Kolla said.

“It is not as simple as making another service available on your app platform,” Kolla added. “Most of the apps that are being downloaded and used do not have the level of stickiness and high usage for them to evolve into a super app.”

For example, Just Dial lines up an entire gamut of services, from food to shopping to transportation. But the app neither has the critical mass nor the level of engagement to become a super app, experts observed.

“User stickiness comes from a combination of the network effect, word of mouth, user experience features, incentivising early adopters and value chain players and proper communication with the target audience,” Kolla said.

“Hike failed because it kept launching features too fast and didn't focus on building the stickiness factor or critical mass for each of those features or apps,” he added.

Keep your users close, data closer

Experts believe Facebook also committed the same mistake as Hike.

“Facebook Messenger was its vehicle to evolve into a super app and replicate WeChat’s strategy,” said Kolla. “Facebook did not throw its weight behind the idea and faltered on execution.”

Facebook trotted out services including dating, shopping and payments back to back.

“To become a bouquet of apps, you need to roll out one service at a time, spend time to market it, communicate it to the users, and grow it until enough people start using the service. Facebook did not focus enough on growing the adoption of each of the new service it launched,” Kolla explained.

The app makers need to have their fingers on the pulse of the mobile industry to come up with viable offerings. That’s where the big data comes in.

Once WeChat scaled its core messaging service to the max, the app started looking under the hood.

“Zhang Xiaolong was passionate about exploring the needs behind the behaviour displayed by users, so the features developed can naturally fit into the user world,” said Anu Hariharan, Partner, YC Continuity Fund in a blog post.

Paytm and PhonePe have the advantage of big data.

“They know where users spend their money, and hence chart out consumer behaviour,” said Kolla. “These companies can use big data analytics to figure out which services and offers users are likely to go for.”

Still, loyalty is a rare commodity among Indian consumers.

“We have too many options for customers in India which is not the case in China,” said Satish Meena, an analyst at Forrester. “When WeChat was 100 million users, there were not many options for users. Alipay also had a very long period of growth without any competition in China before Tencent started to offer payment services. But that’s not the case with India."

Paytm and PhonePe are already competing with multinational companies for market share.

“Users don’t depend on a single app even if the company is offering multiple things, which is why we are fairly divided in terms of the use cases,” Meena explained. “In addition, India is more diversified. Something that works in Haryana might not work in Tamil Nadu, which is not the case in China. We are not a single set of consumers and that reflects in the e-commerce.”

Kolla believes data and analytics will play a key role in building a super app.

“Tomorrow they (companies) can use that data for customised incentives, advertising and communication,” he said.

Bring it on

“It was the demonetisation that made Paytm what it is today,” said Kolla. “Paytm reached the inflection point in November 2017. PhonePe was quite small at the time, and did not see similar growth.”

But Paytm has tried its hand in one too many things.

“Hotels and messaging did not work for them, and food delivery is also in the early stages. We have to wait and see how many customers from Zomato go to Paytm, because they still rely on Zomato’s reviews before ordering or going to a restaurant,” said Meena. “Paytm is adding services not only to retain user on its platform, but also to stay relevant in the fight.”

Paytm started Paytm Mall in early 2017 in line with Tmall (run by Alibaba group), without much success.

“Alibaba is not interested to bet on that (Paytm Mall) in India. And they are a little late,” Meena explained. “They will have to spend USD 3-4 billion before they can even begin to put up a fight against Amazon. And they are very sure they are going to lose money.”

PhonePe, on its part, is taking the ‘Paytm plus’ approach.

“They are offering almost the same services as Paytm, but on top of that, it is going to offer e-commerce, because they have Flipkart and Myntra,” said Meena.

“The timing of Paytm is not right as there are already at least three good competitive payment apps (PhonePe, WhatsApp and GooglePay) as well as UPI. WhatsApp will have a bigger role once they fully integrate payment into their platform and start working more deeply with businesses,” said Meena.

According to Forrester, India had around 113 million online shoppers in 2018, and the number is projected to grow to 175-180 million by 2022. But unlike China, India is not too dependent on e-commerce.

Not many companies are bullish on the prospects of a super app either. Mobikwik, for one, intends to stick to payments and financial services.

“Super app has not worked anywhere in the world except for WeChat in China,” said Bipin Preet Singh, co-founder of Mobikwik. “I don’t think it will work in India.”

“WeChat is very unique to China and that kind of business can’t exist in India. WeChat came in the market very early and that’s why it is one of the dominant players,” he said. “Such conditions do not exist in India. Even WhatsApp can’t be that dominant because no one will allow it to be dominant.”

It is still early days for e-commerce and payments in India, believes Meena.

“It will take another three to five years for things to change,” he said. Meanwhile, the super app contenders are likely to line up more services for customer acquisition.

(Avanish Tiwary and Xintong Chen contributed to the story)

Moulishree Srivastava

Moulishree Srivastava is a Bangalore-based tech journalist. She focuses on emerging Indian startups and unicorns. She can be reached at

Follow Moulishree Srivastava