Aprameya Radhakrishna of TaxiForSure fame, who sold his cab-hailing business in 2015 for USD 200 million to his arch-rival Ola, is on his second entrepreneurial stint.
Alongwith entrepreneur Mayank Bidawakta, Radhakrishna has been spending most of his past seven months developing a mobile-only platform called Vokal. The platform allows users to ask questions on just about anything in their local language.
“There is a dearth of places where a person can go to seek knowledge in his own language. It’s easier for an English-speaking person but not so much for non-English-speaking audience. On the internet, content has never been produced in local language at scale,” said Radhakrishna, co-founder, Vokal.
Very similar to Quora and Reddit, the Bangalore-based Vokal which started in late 2016, is a peer-to-peer knowledge sharing platform in Indian vernacular languages. The app-only platform allows users to post their questions either by typing or speaking into the app. Other users who might know the answer can reply by voice or video message.
If the question has been previously answered, the app will show suggestions to either change the question or go to the past answer. Although he refused to reveal the current user volume, Radhakrishna claims there have been more than half a million questions posted on the app.
In July this year Bombinate Technologies, the parent company of Vokal raised USD 5 million in its Series A round which was led by China-based Shunwei Capital. Other investors like 500 Startups, Accel India and Blume Ventures also participated in the round.
According to Radhakrishna the company has enough money for now. However he added, “If people are willing to join our journey and give us larger valuation, they are welcome to join. Today what we spend as our monthly burn, it might not be the same tomorrow.”
In September, Kalaari Capital pumped in another USD 1.5 million, taking the total money raised by the company to USD 6.5 million. It also acqui-hired quizzing app StupidChat Technology in May this year.
Most of the proceeds, Radhakrishna informed, will go towards hiring the right talent that can build the platform in the fastest way. “The only challenge right now is to get the right team to build this out in the fastest and most productive manner. Market is available and there are a lot of people who would love to use a service like this,” he said.
The untapped local language market
A 2017 report by KPMG and Google said that there were 234 million vernacular internet users and 175 million English language users in 2016. The report estimates that the gap between vernacular and English-language users will only widen. Nine out of 10 new internet users between 2016 and 2021 will use local langauges, the report predicts.
“The Internet is woefully short of good sources for this large incoming segment of hundreds of millions of new users across a dozen Indian languages. We were impressed with the passionate obsession of solving this problem by Aprameya and his team,” observed Karthik Reddy, partner, Blume Ventures.
Reddy added, “Vokal is for the emerging smartphone empowered youth of this country who are far more comfortable in learning and discussing in their native language than English.”
Vokal is currently available only in Hindi and the plan is to scale it to another 10 languages of India such as Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, etc.
Radhakrishna said although he expects more people from small towns to use Vokal, his target is to provide a knowledge sharing platform for anyone who is uncomfortable with English.
The market created by vernacular netizens seems to have attracted the attention of the internet giants in the game as well. At a gathering in New Delhi, Google India managing director Rajan Anandan said the US-based search engine is going to launch its own voice-based platform where people can search for anything by speaking in their own language.
“We have innovated everything ground up and are happy to be inspiring others. The joy of asking a question and listening to its answer in your own mother tongue is something that has been lacking from the Internet so far,” Radhakrishna said.
While the vernacular market in India has just begun to evolve, China, the largest internet market in the world seems already ahead in the field.
For instance, the seven-year-old Q&A (Question and Answer) platform Zhihu, often regarded as the Chinese version of Quora, announced the completion of Series D funding round earlier in 2017. The round left the company valued at over USD 100 million. Capital Today was among the new lead investors while previous shareholders like Tencent, Sougou, Qiming Venture Partners and Sinovation Ventures continued their support to the platform.
Besides Zhihu, various participants are emerging in the Chinese Q&A market and paid knowledge industry in China already shows fierce competition. Baidu Zhidao, one of the pioneers in Chinese Q&A industry, ranked second in 2017 for monthly active user scale. The new comer Wukong Q&A was launched in June 2017 and has increased its user number to over one million within six months.
Grow now, think about money later
Radhakrishna said the focus right now is to build the platform, open it to different languages and on the way figure out a revenue model.
“We haven’t been able to crack our revenue model yet. It’s important to keep building and not lose focus in the beginning. We will find out where the true value lies and who will be ready to pay for the service,” Radhakrishna explained.
US-based Quora, after which Vokal is modelled, did not have any revenue model for seven years. After saying no to advertisements for several years, it finally introduced advertisements on its platform in 2016.
In contrast, Zhihu that claims to have over 160 million users, has also come up with commercial features such as paid courses and answers on its platform. In 2016 it launched ‘Zhihu Live’ that allows content providers to charge an admission fee in the range of CNY 10 to CNY 500 for an information-rich presentation.
In June 2018, Zhihu initiated its superior annual membership mechanism that includes almost every paid product in its platform like Zhihu Live, private lessons and digital books.
The paid content model has been widely adopted in the China’s pioneering knowledge industry. Niche service providers like Douban Time, that is aimed at users with artistic tastes, and Dedao that features qualified professional knowledge have enjoyed encouraging success in the country. However, there are also stories of failures. Fenda, the leading paid voice Q&A platform launched in 2016 had to quit the market in 2018. The app had to down shutters after it failed to maintain user engagement.
Reddy believes customer behaviour keeps evolving and one finds new nuances as a certain scale emerges.
“Once that happens, a more natural path to monetisation usually emerges. Pre-empting it leads to either a sub-optimal consumer experience or a sub-optimal long-term revenue model. China-based Zhihu shows that monetisation is possible at scale.”
(Mengjuan Li, an intern at The Passage, has contributed to the story.)