ByteDance says it is in hyper-growth mode in India. While the USD 75-billion Chinese internet company is shrouded in rumours of bringing in its own music streaming service that will compete against the likes of Spotify, ByteDance remains mum on its future plans and emphasises solely on its commitment to the Indian market.
With 200 million users, the company's flagship short video app TikTok has emerged as a tough competitor to Facebook, which entered India over a decade ago. ByteDance's other apps, Helo, a Chinese version of Sharechat, and Vigo Videos, short video social network, already have 40 million and 20 million monthly users, respectively.
At a time when the Indian government is expected to cut short the free ride of Chinese apps, ByteDance's Helena Lersch, director, Global Public Policy, in an email interview with The Passage said it is prepared for any outcome and remains committed to the Indian market by targeting its 200-400 million first-time time internet users.
The Passage: ByteDance has announced a USD 1-billion investment in India market over the next three years. What are the key areas that you are looking to invest in?
Helena Lersch: ByteDance is a technology company operating a range of content platforms that inform, educate, entertain and inspire people across languages, cultures and geographies. ByteDance now has a portfolio of applications available in over 150 markets and 75 languages. In India, ByteDance operates three products — TikTok, Helo and Vigo Video.
In 2018, we invested USD 100 million in India and we are committed to investing over USD 1 billion in the country over the next three years. The investment will be focused on various areas, including expanding our content partnerships across platforms, building tech infrastructure and expanding our workforce.
We are currently in hyper-growth mode with more than 500 employees and we aim to have more than 1,000 employees by the end of 2019. One-fourth of this workforce will be dedicated to our content moderation efforts in India across our various platforms.
The Passage: What strategic role is India expected to play for ByteDance over the next few years?
Helena Lersch: India is one of the key strategic markets for ByteDance. With the availability of data at a minimal cost and low-cost smartphones in this market, we see an opportunity to empower the existing as well as the next 200-400 million first-time internet users with a wide range of safe and positive content platforms that inspire, entertain, educate and more.
The Passage: What are some of the interesting trends you see among Indian users?
Helena Lersch: Our users in India are very expressive and extremely creative. With the help of low-cost data and affordable smartphones, many first-time internet users use TikTok to showcase moments that matter in their lives through 15-second videos, get access to news and trending topics on Helo which are available in 14 Indian languages, or connect with their community through real stories on Vigo Video.
We’ve observed some very interesting trends based on how our users have interacted on TikTok, Helo and Vigo Video in India.
Just like users from other countries, Indians also get busy with TikTok on weekends and what's more interesting is that they are most active from 11pm to 1am. A diverse list of stars who have gained a massive following on the platform come from all over the world. Across India, some of Bollywood's most popular actors made their debuts on TikTok including Shahid Kapoor, Jacqueline Fernandez and Tiger Shroff.
Many of the biggest trending videos on TikTok come from TikTok challenges, which allow users and fans from all over the world to participate in local conversations in their communities. In India, currently, one of our latest campaigns called #EduTok has gained immense popularity as it invites creators to share educational and informative content across a diverse array of topics.
As part of our partnership with ICC, cricket fans on the platform are cheering for their team in their way with the hashtag #CricketWorldCup, which garnered over 411 million views. Last year, TikTok in India reach a historical milestone of over 5.3 million videos uploaded by users on Diwali.
The Passage: ByteDance is reportedly coming up with an entertainment-cum-music streaming app. Why are you getting into music streaming and how soon do you expect it to be launched?
Helena Lersch: We do not comment on speculation.
The Passage: Tik Tok's popularity surged after the recent ban placed on it was lifted. By when do you think ByteDance will take a lead over Facebook in India?
Helena Lersch: While we don’t comment on competition or other players, we are excited that TikTok has gained immense popularity in India with now over 200 million users in the country.
In fact, post the interim takedown, TikTok once again secured top spot as the No.1 top free app on iOS and as the top free app in the social category on the Google Play Store.
Meanwhile, Helo now has more than 40 million monthly active users (MAUs), within a year of its launch. Within the Q1 of this year, Helo grew its user base by more than 60% from 25 million MAUs, which is very much in line with our target growth of 300% by the end of 2019. Currently, Vigo Video has more than 20 million MAUs nationwide.
The Passage: Advertising is your main revenue model in India. Is your company looking at newer ways to make money in India, like a subscription model?
Helena Lersch: TikTok recently partnered with various brands across industries, including e-commerce, fintech, education and FMCG. We are still at a very early stage to share specifics pertaining to this, but we are looking forward to building an opportunity for brands across industries to offer an opportunity to engage with the TikTok users.
Going forward, we will continue to focus on enhancing the user experience and working closely with partner brands to build innovative advertising solutions.
While we understand that long term revenue model for Helo will be a combination of in-app advertisements, and brand partnerships, we believe these are still early days, therefore, our focus is on developing the in-app user experience. Having said that, we have started experimenting with some ad formats in-app to gauge initial reception.
The Passage: Would ByteDance build local data centres and R&D centres in India? Can India become your R&D hub over the next few years?
Helena Lersch: It is still early days for us here in India, but as mentioned, it is one of the most important markets for us globally. We will be investing USD 1 billion in India over the next three years, which will be used to expand our content partnerships and our workforce across platforms, as well as building tech infrastructure.
The Passage: The Indian government is working on regulations related to data privacy, data localisation and over-the-top apps. What kind of challenges do they pose for ByteDance?
Helena Lersch: We do not comment on pending legislation. Having said that, as a company, we always believe in respecting laws and regulations.
The Passage: Before the general elections, there was increased chatter around Chinese apps. A political faction connected with the ruling party was pushing for regulation of Chinese social media and e-commerce apps. What measures are you taking to deal with such situations?
Helena Lersch: We believe the issue of inappropriate content is an industry-wide challenge and not limited to apps belonging to Chinese origin.
The safety of our users across all our platforms is a key priority for us at ByteDance. In India, TikTok is equipped with the most robust array of industry-leading safety features designed to protect our users from misuse.
The enhanced safety features that set TikTok apart include age gate, which allows users aged 13 years and above to login and create an account on TikTok, to ensure that underage users do not use the platform, as well as a screen time management feature that limits the amount of time spent on the app, promoting digital well-being.
To date, we’ve taken down as many as six million videos that violated TikTok’s Community Guidelines since July 2018.