The failure of Wechat in India & a new breed of Chinese entrepreneurs

Dinesh Vernekar
Jan 3, 2019 · 6 min read
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Factordaily did a story about how Wechat failed in India. It’s quite well written & parts of the story are contributed by my friend & former colleague Himanshu Gupta. If you haven’t read it, you can check it out here — As someone who’s followed the evolution of chat apps & used most of them extensively, i thought i’ll offer my thoughts on the subject.

A key argument in the blog is that Wechat failed to localize it’s product for the Indian market. In my view while localization plays a part in success of a platform, the bigger ideology behind the product & deeper market conditions usually lead to the success or failure of a particular product. Here by localization i mean adding/removing/modifying features or translating app text/content(Example local music in Tik-tok) or changing notation/icons(clap instead of like) not re-thinking the product for the native market & designing from ground up met to their needs specifically.

When launching a new product in an existing market, the most important factor is differentiation. One simply can’t compete with the same features for the same set of users. There are 2 approaches to launching a product — launch on a smaller scale, understand the key needs & iterate(something Newsdog is also doing with multiple apps) or (if $$$ permitting) do a big bang launch to generate curiosity among your users & try to make users jump ship.

Wechat when they launched in India focused on Voice notes — a feature used in China to a great extent to differentiate & the social aspect of the app.

WeChat TVC — focus on voice notes

The TV campaign got them a initial set of users but maybe in the end the users didn’t use the features highlighted. The set of users who used the app was still English speakers who preferred text messaging to voice notes.

Then in Nov 13, they tried the ‘all-in-one social app’ messaging.

WeChat TVC — ‘all in one social app’ branding

To understand why Whatsapp won where Wechat struggled one has to consider the history of the two products. Whatsapp is primarily a chat app, it helps you communicate with one another. Quickly. Wechat on the other hand was already a social network & chat system in China before coming to India. When Wechat launched in India, India already had a strong Facebook presence where we ‘added our friends’, we didn’t need another social network. And as Himanshu points out ‘’built for richer media interactions such as stickers, voice messages and video calling’ it’s product didn’t work on lower end devices in India.

On the other hand Whatsapp took a different route. They had a simple philosophy — make communication seamless for everyone. This meant their biggest design principle was simplicity. They didn’t add unnecessary features keeping the product simple to use for everyone. And more importantly since the founders of Whatsapp were tech guys — they focused on improving the tech infrastructure so that it worked on various network conditions & low memory devices. At a time when SMS charges were exhorbitant, Whatsapp with it’s free messaging was just what users in India wanted. Whatsapp spread like wildfire. If you want to read more about Whatsapp’s design philosophy, check this blog post by Charlie Deets —

Also Whatsapp worked on all phones from the very beginning — Nokia, Windows, Android, iOS — all of them, thus making sure you could communicate with all of your friends regardless of the device they used. Quite simply, Whatsapp was the better messaging product & all Indians cared about was messaging. Not finding users to chat with nearby or chatting with random strangers using shake.

The other important player in the market decided to target younger users. Hike did a whole bunch of innovations to start with. Private chat mode, Indian stickers & ‘hide last seen’ — all directly attacked Whatsapp & were essential in getting a young user-base to shift to Hike. It’s referral program for free recharge helped it get more users in the short term. However in the end, the network effects of Whatsapp were just too powerful for Hike to survive & with the messaging application battle lost Hike increasing looked to evolve it’s app around the payments & social. Hike tried in vain with multiple TV advertising campaigns & another recharge program in a bid to boost falling usage but i suppose in the end it was too uphill a battle. In hindsight one can say Hike spread it’s bets too far & lost focus but had it worked we’ll just say they kept experimenting to win.

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Hike Stickers — so much fun!

Over time Whatsapp integrated more deeply into the users lives. We made groups to keep up with each other, we shared news & content with one another. We used Whatsapp to share photos. And to share location. And smaller businesses sent files using the app. Slowly work communication moved to Whatsapp since it was just faster & simpler than using email. Also since everyone was hooked onto Whatsapp, the replies were faster when you pinged here. So more people pinged on Whatsapp. People changed their DP to broadcast a new place they had been to or to just profess their love for selfies. Parents spied on their kids using ‘last seen’. And insecure couples fought over it. Then came the blue ticks & that took the whole game to a newer level.

As Himanshu points out quite accurately, since WeChat was fighting a competitive battle with China at the time, it was less keen to invest in product changes in India. This has been the case typically with large social companies whose revenue comes to a great extent from their home markets.

Facebook isn’t very keen to customize features for India nor is Snapchat keen to improve it’s tech for emerging markets.

Only recently with Jio have multiple players woken up to the India opportunity with Google building a special Next Billion Users team to build applications specifically for India.

In April 2014, Facebook started forcing users to download the messenger app to continue to chat with their friends. A master move as part of a broader unbundling effort, it led to a swift rise in the usage of messenger. A big reason for the move was Facebook recognizing that messaging was a much more sticky and frequent use-case than social networking.

Having said all this, in my opinion WeChat gave up too early. If we follow the timeline, Tencent had the financial might & engineering capability to make it big difference & there was always the possibility of Whatsapp losing it’s way in the middle like Uber. Consider the music streaming market — Gaana has persisted over the years with multiple TV campaigns & product iterations to emerge as the leading player right now.

A new brand of Chinese entrepreneurs

Utility apps like Shareit, CleanMaster & multiple photo editors have had success in international markets for a long time. But before Bytedance did it with Tik-Tok & Bigo went big in South East Asia, taking an app built in China & expanding it across the world wasn’t something one imagined possible especially in content & social media space. Zhang Yiming’s success will inspire a newer age of Chinese entrepreneurs to dream big & explore international markets. It’s already happening with 44 of top 100 apps on the Indian playstore in 2018 being Chinese.

So what’s changed from 2012 to now? The Chinese have gotten better at understanding the Indian market & executing on their plans. Tik-tok has tied up with Avneet Kaur, Jannat Zubair(plays Pankti in Tu Aashiqui Hai)- young faces of Indian television it’s audience identifies with to promote their product & people who have a higher engagement with their users than a Katrina Kaif/Parineeti Chopra. Vigo-video has video content partnerships with Elvish Yadav & MakejokeOf — both immensely popular channels from Haryana & Kanpur respectively. They’ve opened up offices in India to engage with creators & support them. When they merged Musically with Tik-tok, they got all creators to publish a video explaining the new brand to quell the expected backlash. In short, they’re just executing better.

WeChat lost because it only committed partly to winning the Indian market but the newer age of Chinese entrepreneurs are in it to win it.

That’s it for now. If you liked my post, please click the ‘CLAP’ button below and do leave a comment! I’ll love to hear from you.

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