Why Indian entrepreneurs are unable to build apps for the mass Indian user

On a recent trip to China with a group of Indian internet entrepreneurs, it was eye-opening to see how Chinese Internet companies (especially utility apps) have silently made inroads into Indian mass markets without any fanfare.

Church Street in Bangalore. Image credit: www.ehabweb.net

UC Browser, ShareIt, CleanMaster, to name just three, have real and significant penetration among Indian users. This led to some soul-searching within the group about why Indian entrepreneurs are, by and large, unable to build apps for the mass Indian user.

My hypothesis is that most Indian entrepreneurs and product managers build products for people like themselves — elite and westernised Indians who think and speak in English. This is also why almost all Internet companies fight it out for the first 10–20 million internet users.

However, the honest truth of the Indian internet market is that to build a large Internet business, you need find a way to build for the 200 million common Indians. There’s scepticism around how you would be able to monetise these users but it won’t look too different from how FMCG companies solved it.

Being the Helpchat CEO, the change starts at home. Here are some things which we are now trying to instill at Helpchat to ensure that we build an Internet product for the common Indian.

Firstly, we need to relate to and respect the common Indian. India is still a stratified society (whether we like to admit it or not) and I’ve come across some arrogance and even condescension towards these users among the so-called elite and well-educated product makers. Given the different affluence levels, sometimes it can be genuinely be difficult to relate to their concerns.

Secondly, get out of the office and talk to them. There’s a billion dollars lying out there. One weekend, I took all product managers in our team to Church Street in Bengaluru and we spent four hours talking to security guards, waitresses and small business owners. You need to see their phones, their home screens and understand their behaviour. All of them mooch off the Starbucks internet; a guard uses Uber to pick up his family from railway station, a waitress wants news about her hometown and a business owner needs more content around jobs.

Thirdly, be Indian. Most Internet startups are too Westernised — we leave our Indianness at home. For things to resonate with the average Indian mass user, we need to embrace our Indianness. For example, our user interfaces and experiences copy Western apps instead of thinking ground up. Selling a salwar kameez online or a calendar app for India should be (or at least, could be) fundamentally different from what we are accustomed to.

Fourthly, think about Maslow’s hierarchy of mobile needs. Think about basic aspects of the phone — battery, data usage, phone space, balance on their phone. For example, most readers of ET would think that Chrome is a great mobile browser until they see how UC Browser has built a download manager, optimised for Facebook messages and reduced data usage (all features super important for the common Indian). Think about content that resonates better with such users. Go deeper than just having a vernacular version of the app; or ABCD (astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity).

While in theory it makes sense, generally most founders and product managers don’t do the above. One founder related the story of a product manager who came up to him and said he honestly doesn’t enjoy his work because he can’t relate to the average Indian user and wants to go back and work in Silicon Valley. Most founders don’t have that liberty.

With increasing disposable income levels and reducing cost of accessing internet, there’s a great opportunity to monetise from these users and it’s the right time for Indian internet companies to seriously start thinking about this.