In 2014, when Ankush Sachdeva, 26, was dabbling with the idea of creating a content platform in local language, his friends chided him saying no one creates an app in Hindi or Malayalam. But he, along with his other co-founders Bhanu Singh and Farid Ahsan went ahead and launched ShareChat.
ShareChat allows its users to share messages on its platform ranging from daily greetings, jokes, beauty tips, life advice, etc. Its content creators and consumers are mostly from tier 2 to tier 4 towns, and according to Sachdeva they are “hungry for content.”
Sachdeva says ShareChat is an app for a demography that will go to YouTube to find the capital of a country, use symbols such as ‘@’ and ‘$” in their user name and their profile picture will be a photoshopped image with a celebrity.
“For this demography, the definition of internet is very limited. It’s not like us where we Google and find the whole internet. For them, a lot of websites are not even built,” Sachdeva says during an interaction with The Passage.
Sachdeva opened up to Avanish Tiwary and Ruiyao Luo, and talked in detail about how after three pivots, the current version of ShareChat was launched.
The Passage: Please describe ShareChat’s growth for our readers.
Ankush: We have been working on ShareChat for a long time now. Our first version that came out in December 2014, was a chat room. We arrived at the current version after three different pivots and a few interesting learnings. The current version of ShareChat came about in October 2015.
Farid, Bhanu and I, we know each other since 2012 from IIT Kanpur days. We met at a Yahoo Hackathon, gelled together and started building products in college. We made 13 different products before creating ShareChat. We created an online real-estate buying product, an app that tracked crime in Delhi, a musical game, a dating product called Puppy Love, which I am proud to inform gets users in IIT Kanpur campus every Valentine’s Day.
The Passage: How did you discover the audience for ShareChat?
Ankush: We got the idea of creating ShareChat while we were working on our 13th product Opinion, a debating platform.
To get some traffic to our website, I was going through random Facebook groups, spamming them with the links to Opinion. That is when I discovered this post in a Facebook group meant for fans of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
There were thousands of people on the group, and this post said, “I'm making a WhatsApp group for Sachin, please give your phone number in the comments.” There were 50,000 comments. These were real people putting their phone numbers in a public forum. It was a time when India was going through Internet privacy concerns.
I copied the phone numbers and made around 10 WhatsApp groups with 100 members each. I named them Sachin videos, Sachin photos, Sachin jokes, and so on. I went for lunch. When I returned an hour later, I found the groups filled with hundreds of messages. It was all content.
People would ask in Hindi for video of Sachin hitting a 100 in the Sharjahan Cup and someone would reply in three seconds. You and I would go to YouTube and find that kind of content, but in 2014 these guys were using WhatsApp as Google. Facebook was not solving their content needs. They found WhatsApp much more native and comfortable.
We realised there is a non-English audience so hungry for content, that they put their numbers on Facebook to get into a WhatsApp group and talk to strangers. That's a big loop and if people are willing to do so much they must be really hungry for content.
The first version of ShareChat was a chat room because we wanted to be as close to WhatsApp as an interface and still get content.
There were different chat rooms based on different interests. In between conversations our bot would throw content. For example, in a chat group for Saint Sai Baba we put his picture automatically every twenty chats.
The content, however, got buried in the chat and the conversation was meaningless. Then we tweaked the model a bit, where the bot asks you whether you want wallpapers of Sai Baba, and when the user says ‘yes’, the bot sends it.
The Passage: WhatsApp sharing is core to your offering on the app. How did you arrive at that feature?
Ankush: When the app was in the chat room phase, we realised people would just ask the bot for pictures, download it and leave. We found that people forwarded our content to WhatsApp groups.
So we moved to the current version of ShareChat, where you have a simple feed of content coming in one after another and you can share it on WhatsApp directly from there. We had no option of creating profiles or following other people.
‘Good morning’ is a content only consumed on WhatsApp, which people can share on our platform. But we started seeing more of other things coming. Say, I write a poem on ShareChat and that is being consumed and shared by my followers.
This was unexpected because our algorithms were always tuned for sharing that got us organic growth. Soon we tweaked our algorithms to put some weightage on internal consumption. The result was a spike in the diversity of content.
After that our retention number went over the roof. Before this, people would come to get ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ messages, but now they have content relevant to them such as religion, food, beauty, etc., in their own language in one app.
We actually replaced WhatsApp groups.
The Passage: In your earlier version, basic features such as creating profile or following others weren’t there.
Ankush: We never intended to build a social media. We thought we will just build a content sharing platform.
Initially, the idea was to create a simple tool to share content on WhatsApp. We optimised our algorithms only for sharing. As a result most of the content became ‘good morning’ or a joke, which people shared in their groups with friends and family. But we found out that before forwarding these wallpapers people would edit and put their names in it.
That is when we realised we should allow people to have profiles with their pictures and things like that.
We arrived at the current feed through multiple iterations. It was in the middle of 2017 when impressions of content on ShareChat exceeded what our users could get through WhatsApp. That is when we saw that people were now creating content for the ShareChat user base.
The Passage: We found that the tagging of content is not accurate on ShareChat. I could find pictures of Sai Baba in the cooking section.
Ankush: That is definitely a problem. The issue is to teach a first-time Internet user the meaning of social network. Our tagging system is very different from what you have in a product like Twitter, where it's open for users to create a tag. You use it or you don't use it, it's up to you.
When you impose a tutorial path, sometimes people just want to put some content and get away. So they just pick up any tag. But over time they realize that if you put the right tag you get more engagement. We do use AI to some extent to figure out if a tag is wrongly used and we de-prioritise it in the album. It’s a problem that we're trying to solve.
The Passage: How is ShareChat different from apps such as Helo, Like, TikTok, etc.?
Ankush: Short video consumption is a very small portion of content creation. Imagine your account on Instagram or Twitter. Music and dance will be a small portion of your overall experience. It’s the same case on ShareChat.
We do get a lot of content from other apps. People either create content on these apps or forward short videos to our app. That’s a small percentage. But the large content is news, inspirational quotes, and also things like Baba Ramdev doing Yoga. This is something you won’t expect on TikTok or Like. Majority of our content is images, not videos.
The Passage: How did we move from being content consumers to creators?
Ankush: People are very competitive inherently. In school you have this game of popularity, where the football captain reaches top of the social ladder—that’s the game we are playing in school. But after education, if you're not in an MNC or if you're not writing an article with your name on it, what is your game?
Then the game becomes how popular you are on ShareChat, Tiktok, etc. That's the game we are creating.
You see, they (small town creators) have never felt important in terms of their social game. People in metro cities have enough avenues to show their importance and gain social capital. We have followers on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
But guys from smaller towns didn't have a game. So they are hungry to build a social capital. And for that if it requires them to do makeup and do a funny skit, they will do that. I think that is what is driving them to be content creators.
The Passage: Do you think the personalisation that people get on TikTok and other short video apps is missing from ShareChat?
Ankush: On TikTok and other such products, very few number of creators are able to get engagement. You have to be either very talented, good looking or very good at lip-syncing to become popular on TikTok. That effectively puts a cap on the number of creators you can get eventually.
So a very small percentage of people actually crack that platform, but you would definitely have something to share in your native tongue on Sharechat that could go viral.
Our barrier for being a creator is very low, and we expect people to casually share something around them. There are people who are ready to listen to your poetry or watch temple rituals recorded on your phone.
They have no pressure, they're not being judged. Very often people just record a dog fight, and it gets popular.
It’s not a rat race, unlike TikTok, where creators always want to be on top.