We haven’t yet built the Indian internet!

“Build for the US. The Indian market is tiny, really.”
— Almost every Indian entrepreneur on the Internet

Whether you are an online business catering to customers at scale or a startup that is focused on a niche market, it is hard to escape this loosely paraphrased remonstrance on the Internet.

Most recently, Rahul Yadav rather succinctly voiced his opinions on the matter. Amitabh Kant and Mahesh Murthy greatly agree with him, too.

Are they wrong? Not really.

Turns out that the latter part of it is, at least, true. The English-conversant audience in India is tiny. Really.

The numbers don’t lie. Less than 10% people in India speak English, and only about 4% are comfortable with the language. Let’s do a simple math, shall we?

India has a population of 1.4 billion. 4% of that population amounts to only 56 million. And the rest of one billion three hundred forty-four million people are conveniently ignored. Now, that is a largely untapped market base.

If you think that this “largely untapped market base” are first in need of basic necessities and they can live without the Internet, you are not alone. Most online Indian businesses that operate at scale are with you.

But, they are wrong. And so are you.

Here’s what FMCGs found out recently: rural India is prioritising the Internet over other discretionary choices. That joke about the wifi being at the bottom of human needs might just be coming true, in a sense.

A large set of non-English savvy users are already online, and they are getting hungrier.

They are rapidly consuming whatever they can on the Internet. But they are on the verge of digital starvation. Less than 0.1% of online content is in languages other than English.

We’re (at Reverie) engaged with the market, and researching this space extensively. Almost all pointers are that the Indian audience is largely non-English speaking, online or getting there rapidly, and hungry for content and services.

The top apps are mostly Indian language or Indian language content ones — and the numbers are not insignificant.

WhatsApp has a 96% reach, and 61% of the Indian users primarily use their native languages to communicate with it. For every 10 images shared on WhatsApp, there are 3 voice messages.

These are the same people who contribute to the statistics that make up the numbers of regional-language print and TV consumption. The amount of English-savvy audience in the same category is dwarfed, at best.

People are hungry and are circumventing the lack of local-language content and services in whatever ways they can.

TV DAU at 475M. Television is also the only medium that has hit equilibrium of supply:demand, clearly demonstrating in process just about how central languages are to the Indian content story. Over 90% of Indian TV channels are multilingual. The Internet has to catch up to this, eventually and not the other way round. Folks like Netflix have not just realized the gap that India presents, but unlike the naysayers back home are also aggressively acting on it. They’re already producing its first India original series, with content in Marathi, Punjabi and Gujarati in the pipeline.

Now we will address the former part of the paraphrase: “Build for the US.”

To address any impending problem, one first has to identify it with the right use cases.

First of all, the Indian online market is so vastly different from the US. The biggest differentiator? Linguistic heterogeneity.

The US online market is united by the English language, whereas the Indian market is multifaceted, not only in terms of languages but also in terms of infrastructure and accessibility.

And the Internet has only recently begun to speak Indian. In extremely small amounts.

The right way to understand the approaches to digitally unify India would be to take a good, long look at the Chinese market. It is similar to the Indian market in a lot of ways.

They have a huge set of diverse population that are culturally, linguistically, geographically, and socially varied. The Chinese are no more adept at English than our local-language users are.

China went from 34% Internet penetration in 2010 to 52% in 2016. That’s 260M people who’ve come online the first half of this decade! While China’s Internet penetration growth rate has fallen from 20% in 2010 to 2% today, India is ruling the charts with a 40% YoY growth that makes the Mary Meekers 2016 Internet report India as an anomaly skewing the world average of Internet penetration growth.

But we have a barrier that China found a way around really early, if we want any of this to translate into value. Just like signups as a typical SaaS metric have given way to DAUs and WAUs, to ensure engagement, we as an industry need to ensure that the half a billion poised to come online are welcomed with a befitting UX. In India, language happens to be both the biggest barrier and endearment when it comes to engagement.

And, most Chinese online businesses are at least an order of magnitude larger than India’s biggest equivalents.

How did they even achieve that?

Well, for starters, the Chinese did one thing right. They localised. They did not build for the US thinking the Chinese market was tiny.

Rather, they built intelligent, local solutions that the Chinese population could not only consume but also participate in. The Chinese Internet space took off and became huge because it is in Chinese.

But the Indian Internet is not completely Indian. Yet.

And as for the “Indian market is tiny” part of the paraphrase: Well, that is the one that online businesses are currently chasing after. The 4%. That is tiny.

The remaining 1-billion+ user market that’s already engaged in so many ways does not even begin to describe tiny.

Our Internet should speak and be more Indian

In his recent visit to China, Vivek, Reverie’s CTO, learnt a number of things that endorse what we at Reverie are incessantly working to address.

In his own words,

“About 30% companies I met had founders who were educated in the US. These companies grew by developing China-specific solutions and not global ones. The captive market in China is large enough to solve.”

Rather than just building for the US, the Chinese learnt from the US and built for China. Understanding the needs and behaviour of users in multilingual geographies is imperative. Research proves that minority users would eventually adapt to the expected behaviour of the majority users.

Like China, India is a large captive market with many problems to solve. But, the Indian Internet serves only the minority users who are tech-savvy and English-savvy and expects the majority to adapt.

The concept of Indian Internet has become an elitist notion. But we are not an elitist nation. The Indian Internet is a façade.

Vivek’s China trip reinforced what we feared, at Reverie. He met some Chinese companies who have already succeeded in entering the Indian market, studying, iterating, and surpassing the existing Indian solutions.

The lack of efforts put into understanding our own local-language customers combined with the lack of online local-language content poses a grave threat to our economy.

Cheetah Mobile’s Newsdog, a Chinese news aggregator, shot up to #1 in India in its category, and Alibaba went multilingual recently! They also understand that it’s not the quick delivery their customers count on but the easy access to decent products at a great price.

They’re seriously attempting to understand the 96% in India.

The real India is outside our comfort zones. And it’s HUGE!

India is on track to become the 3rd largest automobile market. It’s the fastest growing telecom market, and on a huge base. It is also one of the world’s fastest growing entertainment industries.

It has also recently become the second largest smartphone market. And soon, the largest for Lenovo.

India is where WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn and Quora have some of their largest audiences. Even Tinder.. wow — who’d have thought! We are not too shabby for Amazon either.

And this is not just in term of numbers, but also engagement. Reports indicate that Indians have not just the highest number of DAUs, but with an average of 42 minutes — also the highest engagement time on Whatsapp.

App store downloads in India are projected to grow by 92% to 7.7 billion in 2016 and eventually reach 20.1 billion in 2020. In addition, the overall amount of time Indian consumers spend in apps has also more than doubled since Q1 2014, outpacing worldwide growth. We could go on and on, but the point is that the Indian industry of every type is already big and rapidly growing. It is already all around us. It’s up to us to make digital relevant for them.

We will have to rethink the product-market fit to cater to this large a base. The UX aspect of it will be completely redefined. The FMCG folks have been good at defining products for this market for decades now in their space, and now the digital versions will have to understand and crack open as well.

And most of all, it will take talking to India in “Indian” to usher this local-content hungry user base to the new era in the Indian Internet. We will go multilingual.

This multilingual market is already being tapped as we speak. The Chinese seem to be waking up to it. Will we too, and innovate, create and localize for this market, or be left behind playing catch up later?


(I’m also VP, Products at Reverie Language Tech, in my other avataar. This was a topic we were discussing and researching internally, so thought it’d be good to share some thoughts about India, the size of the markets, language and other hurdles. Written collaboratively with abhishek tiwari.)