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Lead Story/Feature

Making stories count

Pratilipi, at its core, is a storytelling platform. 95% of content will remain free even when we monetise, says CEO Ranjeet Pratap Singh

Jun 17, 2019 by Ebin K Gheevarghese
Making stories count

The British passport is issued in the Queen’s name. And for that reason, the CEO of England doesn’t need a passport to travel the world.

The 30-year-old co-founder and CEO of the largest Indian language storytelling platform, Pratilipi, doesn’t have a passport either. Yet he is going places.

Earlier this year, Chinese venture fund Qiming Venture Partners led Pratilipi’s Series B round (Rs 105 crore).

“Qiming reached out to us saying we want to understand what you are doing and said we would love to participate. Our initial plan was to not to raise series B, but we really liked Helen (Qiming),” Singh told The Passage. Who needs a passport, when places can come to you, right?

Ranjeet Pratap Singh sat down with The Passage’s Ruiyao Luo and Ebin Gheevarghese to talk about Pratilipi’s origin story, future plans and the state of play.

Edited Excerpts:

The Passage: How did Pratilipi come about?

Ranjeet Singh: There's a real reason and there is a rational reason. The real reason is really simple. I am a voracious reader. I read probably about 130-plus books a year. I started with Hindi comics and then moved to Hindi classical literature. Later, I went to pursue engineering. I realised Hindi content was not readily available online. So I had to shift to English. I used to complain to my friends about how I should be able to read in the language of my choice.

I worked for Vodafone for a couple of years and then I quit my job as it seemed too easy. I wanted to do something that would be a little harder and more challenging. So this is when my friends called me and asked me to give it a shot. That's the real reason.

The rational reason is 90% of the country doesn't speak English and 99% of content is basically in English. That doesn't make any sense.

The Passage: Tell us about Pratilipi’s user engagement.

Ranjeet Singh: We publish in nine languages. We plan to launch Urdu in two to three months. It’s in beta right now. We have over 100,000 authors. On the readers’ side, we have about 5.4 million monthly active users, as of last month.

English segment was launched recently. However, engagement is less than 1%. Hindi is the biggest on both readers’ and writers’ side in terms of engagement.

Fiction accounts for 70% of the total content. Within fiction, the most popular categories are suspense/thriller and romance.

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The Passage: Why would a writer put content on your platform than, say, a personal blog or a podcast?

Ranjeet Singh: It makes sense to publish in an existing platform. It doesn't matter if it’s Kindle or Pratilipi or YouTube.

However, a lot depends on what you're trying to do, what you're trying to achieve, and how much effort you are willing to put in. If you publish something on Pratilipi, and if it is really good, you can get a million readers in a short span. Individually, almost no one can get a million readers without the help of a big platform.

For example, if you have created a podcast, you can either put it on your own website or you can put it on a big platform. You are relying on somebody else for distribution. If it’s your own website, how many people can you really get? The reason why people publish something on Medium is because they'll get more readers.

The Passage: What do Chinese investors bring to the table?

Ranjeet Singh: Qiming has been fantastic, just like most of our other investors. They would never get involved unless we ask them to. In Qiming’s case specifically, it’s mostly around what I want to learn. For example, a particular use case about China or how a particular company in China solved a particular problem.

In the last 10 months, free reading has picked up in China. Qutoutiao has launched an app called MIDU and got 5 million daily active users in seven months. ByteDance has its own free reading app. Both Qiming and Shunwei helped me reach out to all these people to understand better what is working for them and what's not.

The Passage: What are you planning to do with the proceedings?

Ranjeet Singh: Honestly, we would like to keep most of it in the bank. The biggest expense we have is building on the engineering side.

We also want to spend more money and time on author engagement, at least on our top writers. This could mean online events, get togethers, etc. We already have a fairly strong community. We want to make it even stronger.

We launched audio about four months back. Pratlipi, at its core, is a storytelling platform. 95% of our content will always be free even when we start monetising.

The Passage: What are your thoughts on the rise of local languages in India’s digital ecosystem?

Ranjeet Singh: Around 2016 and 2017, a couple of things happened simultaneously. Jio had a huge impact. Data prices plunged. Companies like ShareChat, Dailyhunt and Pratilipi started growing, raising money and getting popular.

Around the same time, Hotstar started doing really well and Netflix decided to come to India. Amazon, Google and Facebook started talking a lot about how important India is for them. In 2016, Indian language products were the largest focus area for Google’s Next Billion Users unit. Essentially, a lot of things came together at the same time.

The Passage: What do you think your future competition would look like?

Ranjeet Singh: Jio is the obvious candidate. Tencent, ByteDance and Alibaba are potential competitors. One of these companies will invest in Pratilipi and the others will compete.

ByteDance has already launched something like Pratilipi in China. We have started seeing signs of network effect. If most of the people are outside the network, network effect doesn’t really matter. We are strong enough to fight a company with, say, USD 50 million capital, but not a giant like ByteDance or Tencent.

The Passage: Give us a peek into the average time users spend on your app, rush hours and user demographics.

Ranjeet Singh: On app about 41 minutes, and on web about 15 minutes. In terms of rush hours, there are two sweet spots. From 1.30 pm to around 3 pm and from 9 pm to 12 am.

In terms of geography, about 5% of our users are non-resident Indians. About 50% users are from top seven cities in India and the rest are from smaller cities, towns and villages. About 45% of our readers are men and 55% are women. On the writer side, it’s vice versa.

On an average, about 74% users are between 18 and 34 years of age.

The Passage: How do you deal with seedy content on the platform?

Ranjeet Singh: We follow a two-pronged approach. Users can flag content that doesn't meet the community guidelines. Our language team takes a call on how to handle the user-flagged content.

Secondly, we have engines built to vet content. The algorithm tries to detect if something should not be on the platform. It could be because of hate speech, copyright violation or something else. If the engine itself flags it, again it goes back to the language team and gets reviewed.

The Passage: Tell us about Pratilipi’s work culture.

Ranjeet Singh: We have distributed leadership here. The way Pratilipi works is, it doesn’t matter if you an intern or a CEO, you have 100% accountability and 100% ownership on whatever you are doing. Pratilipi is extra democratic. Our Glassdoor review is one of the best in the world.

The Passage: Why do you think so many Chinese platforms fail to take off in India?

Ranjeet Singh: It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s hard to build a company and most of them would fail. You can retrospectively justify saying they don’t understand India, they don’t have the engineers and X, Y, Z reasons. Honest answer is, most products fail. That’s just how it is. Most Indian startups fail as well, not just the Chinese.

We’ve spoken with most of the Chinese companies launched in India. They know China is good at engineering, but also understand that they don’t get the local nuances. So when they come to India they will spend time in India and hire people who understand India. Only then they will build a product on the top of the engineering they have. They don’t fail because they don’t understand the nuances.

The Passage: How do you find Chinese investors different from their Indian counterparts?

Ranjeet Singh: Chinese founders are crazy. I mean it in the best way. They are insanely aggressive, insanely hardworking, insanely ambitious and, funnily enough, insanely grounded.

Chinese companies work in a very different style from Valley. In Valley, you build an MVP, you learn from your customer and try to build the right product and try to get some sort of defensibility, like network effects or economies of scale. Then you raise a large amount of money and spend that money to grow faster and become profitable and do an IPO.

Whereas, Chinese companies build the MVP, test it out, spend a lot of money to grow very quickly and then think about defensibility. China seems to focus on scale first and defensibility later.

Pratilipi is a lot more about the Valley school of thought than the China school of thought. ShareChat is the other way around.

The Passage: Do you have enough people writing good content on the platform?

Ranjeet Singh: Pratilipi has 100,000 writers. However, for a country of more than one billion people, it’s not enough. India is the largest newspaper market in the world and the third largest book publishing and reading market. If you remove the ‘official’, the actual number will probably be bigger than China. The official number only talks about the books that have ISBN. Most books published don’t have an ISB number. The actual numbers could be 10 times the official numbers.

The Passage: Tell us about the nature of Pratilipi’s content.

Pratilipi is a mass market product. We have people ranging from autorickshaw drivers to Cabinet ministers reading on our platform.

Most of Pratilipi’s content is sophisticated. It’s not TikTok or ShareChat’s content. Our platform is more like Netflix or YouTube.

Ebin K Gheevarghese

Ebin Gheevarghese is a Bangalore-based tech journalist. He focuses on emerging Indian startups. He can be reached at ebin@thepassage.cc.

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