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Main article: India

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Vodafone Idea shares tumble 23% after India orders it to pay billions in dues

00:49 | 15 February

Shares of Vodafone Idea fell by more than 23% on Friday after India’s apex court ordered the country’s second-largest telecom operator and Airtel, the third-largest telecom network, to arrange and pay billions of dollars in dues in a month.

In a strongly worded judgement, the Supreme Court rejected telecom networks’ application to defer paying historic $13 billion levies to the government. “This is pure contempt, 100% contempt,” Justice Arun Mishra told lawyers.

The order today, which may result in U.K. telecom giant Vodafone’s local joint venture’s collapse, saw Vodafone Idea’s shares plunge by 23.21%. Vodafone Idea had more than 336 million subscribers as of November last year, according to official figures (PDF).

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court’s order was followed by direction from the Department of Telecoms to pay the dues by the end of Friday. The local ministry of telecommunications also ordered the telecom companies to keep their relevant offices open on Saturday to “facilitate” payments and answer queries.

In October, the Supreme Court ruled that Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, as well as several other operators, including some that are no longer operational, will have to pay the government within 90 days a combined $13 billion in adjusted gross revenue as spectrum usage charges and license fees.

The Indian government and telecom operators have for a decade disputed how gross revenue should be calculated. The government has mandated the license and spectrum fee to be paid by operators as a share of their revenue. Telcos have argued that only core income accrued from use of spectrum should be considered for calculation of adjusted gross revenue.

Commenting on the ruling, Airtel said that it would pay $1.3 billion by next week and the remainder (about $5 billion) before March 17, when the Supreme Court hears the case again. Its shares rose 4.69% on Friday as the telecom operator is in a better position to pay and the prospects of it being only the second major telecom network to fight Reliance Jio, the top network run by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani .

In recent months, executives of U.K.-headquartered Vodafone, which owns 45% of Vodafone Idea, have said that the group’s telecom business in India would “shut shop” if the government does not offer it any relief. Vodafone Idea, which is already saddled by $14 billion in net debt, owes about $4 billion in levies to the Indian government.

Vodafone Idea Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla said in December that the firm is headed toward insolvency in the absence of a relief from the government. “It doesn’t make sense to put good money after bad,” he said then.

The last few years have been difficult for telecom operators in India, which arrived in the nation to secure a slice of the world’s second most populous market. But since 2016, they have lost tens of millions of subscribers after Ambani launched Reliance Jio and offered free data and voice calls for an extended period of time, forcing every other company to slash their tariffs.

Sidharth Luthra, a senior advocate at Supreme Court, said in a televised interview that the court is within its rights to reach such a decision, but said that perhaps they should have considered the economic consequences of the ruling that would impact jobs, and could disrupt the everyday lives of people who rely on a network’s services.

Vodafone Idea is the

on Twitter as of early Saturday (local time), as numerous people expressed concerns about the future prospects of the telecom network and worried if the service would remain operational for them.

 


0

MoEngage lands $25M for its mobile-first customer engagement platform

12:30 | 11 February

MoEngage, a San Francisco and Bangalore-based startup that helps firms better understand their customers and improve their engagement, has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to grow its network in Asian markets.

The new financing round, Series C, was led by Eight Roads Ventures . F-Prime Capital, Matrix Partners India, and Ventureast also participated in the round. The six-year-old startup, which is an Alchemist alum, has raised about $40 million to date.

MoEngage offers a product that allows clients to get deeper insight about the way their customers — or users — are engaging with their apps and websites. “We can, for instance, tell at what time a customer is using the app,” said Raviteja Dodda, founder and chief executive of MoEngage, in an interview with TechCrunch.

These insights, all displayed on one dashboard, could be very useful for firms to retain their existing customers or find optimized ways to attempt to sell more to them.

“Based on your understanding about the customer, you can send them personalized notifications. Say you’re using a ride-hailing app. The firm would now know how often you use their app and at what time you tend to avail their service. Based on these learnings, they can offer you deals or reminders that could help them improve their conversion rate,” he said.

MoEngage today works with a number of major firms in North America, Europe, and Asia. Some of its clients include Deutsche Telekom, CIMB Bank, Travelodge, Samsung, McAfee, Vodafone, retail chain Future Retail, ride-hailing service Ola, budget-hotel operator OYO, grocery delivery startup Bigbasket, and music streaming service Gaana.

In total, Dodda said his startup has amassed “hundreds of clients” in over 35 countries and is serving more than 400 million active users for them each day.

“MoEngage, with its differentiated offering, scalable platform and a customer-first approach, will play an important role in enabling us to deliver contextual and relevant communications to our customers and drive higher customer lifetime value,” said Arun Srinivas, chief operating officer at Indian ride-hailing startup Ola, in a statement.

MoEngage, which competes with a handful of startups including India-based Clevertap, will infuse the fresh capital to find more customers in Asia, and scale its product operations in the U.S. and Europe, said Dodda.

“What differentiates MoEngage from other engagement platforms is the combination of their ever-evolving AI-enabled customer journey capabilities, industry-best channel reachability and top-notch customer support. We are thrilled to partner with Raviteja and his team as they look to expand globally,” said Shweta Bhatia, Partner at Eight Roads Ventures.

 


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Twitter-backed ShareChat eyes fantasy sports in India

03:35 | 7 February

The growing market of fantasy sports in India may soon have a new and odd entrant: ShareChat .

The local social networking app, which in August last year raised $100 million in a financing round led by Twitter, has developed a fantasy sports app and has been quietly testing it for six months, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

ShareChat’s fantasy sports app, called Jeet11, allows betting on cricket and football matches and has already amassed more than 120,000 registered users, the sources said. The app, or its website, does not disclose its association with ShareChat.

A ShareChat spokesperson confirmed the existence of the app and said the startup was testing the product.

Jeet11 is not available for download on the Google Play Store due to the Android maker’s guidelines on betting apps, so ShareChat has been distributing it through Xiaomi’s GetApps app store and the Jeet11 website, and has been promoting it on Instagram. It is also available as a web app.

Fantasy sports, a quite popular business in many markets, has gained some traction in India in recent years. Dream11, backed by gaming giant Tencent, claimed to have more than 65 million users early last year. It has raised about $100 million to date and is already valued north of $1 billion.

Bangalore-based MPL, which counts Sequoia Capital India as an investor and has raised more than $40 million, appointed Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, as its brand ambassador last year.

In the last two years, scores of startups have emerged to grab a slice of the market, and the vast majority of them are focused on cricket. Cricket is the most popular sport in India, just ask Disney’s Hotstar, which claimed to have more than 100 million daily active users during the cricket season last year.

Or ask Facebook, which unsuccessfully bid $600 million to secure streaming rights of the IPL cricket tournament. It has since grabbed rights to some cricket content and appointed the Hotstar chief as its India head.

So it comes as no surprise that many sports betting apps have signed cricketers as their brand ambassador. Hala-Play has roped in Hardik Pandya and Krunal Pandya, while Chennai-based Fantain Sports has appointed Suresh Raina.

But despite the growing popularity of fantasy sports apps, where users pick players and bet real money on their performances, the niche is still sketchy in many markets that consider it betting. In fact, Twitter itself restricts promotion of fantasy sports services in many markets across the world.

In India, too, several states, including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Telangana, have banned fantasy sports betting. Jeet11 currently requires users to confirm that they don’t live in any of the restricted states before signing up for the service.

“It doesn’t help matters either that the fantasy sports business’ attempts at legitimacy involve trying to be seen as video games — a cursory glance at a speakers panel for any Indian video game developer event is evidence of this — rather than riding on its own merits,” said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet the Mako Reactor.

An executive who works at one of the top fantasy sports startups in India, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that despite handing out cash rewards to thousands of users each day, it is still challenging to retain customers after the conclusion of any popular cricket tournament. “And that’s after you have somehow convinced them to visit your website or download the app,” he said.

For ShareChat, which has been exploring ways to monetize its 60 million-plus users and posted a loss of about $58 million on no revenue in the financial year ending March 31, that’s anything but music to the ears. In recent months, the startup, which serves users in more than a dozen local languages, has been experimenting with ads.

 


0

Two-year-old Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raises $15M

14:52 | 1 February

Doubtnut, a Gurgaon-based startup that operates an app to help students learn and master concepts from math and science using short videos, has raised $15 million in a new financing round as it looks to serve more people in small cities and towns of the country.

The financing round, Series A, was led by Chinese giant Tencent. Existing investors Omidyar Network India, AET, Japan and Ankit Nagori (founder of fitness startup Cure.Fit), and Sequoia Capital India also participated in the round, the two-year-old startup said.

Doubtnut, part of Sequoia Capital India’s Surge accelerator, has raised $18.5 million to date, and its new financing round valued it at about $50 million, a person familiar with the matter said.

The app allows students from sixth grade to high-school solve and understand math and science problems in local languages. Doubtnut app allows them to take a picture of the problem, and uses machine learning and image recognition to deliver their answers through short-videos.

A student can take a picture of the problem, and share it with Doubtnut through its app, website, or WhatsApp and get a short video that shows the answer and walks them through the procedure to tackle it.

Doubtnut said it has amassed over 13 million monthly active users across its website, app, YouTube, and WhatsApp . More than 85% of Doubtnut users today come from outside of the top 10 cities in India, said Tanushree Nagori, co-founder of Doubtnut. She said that more than half of these students have come online in the last one year.

“Doubtnut is truly democratizing education across India. Our user base reflects the entire demography of India, something which no other education app in the country has come close to achieving,” she said.

The growth of Doubtnut represents the emergence of a wave of startups in India that are tackling local challenges. In the education space alone, a number of players including Byju’s, which is now valued at $8 billion, Unacademy, Vedanutu, and GradeUp have shown impressive growth.

Gaurav Munjal, founder and chief executive of Unacademy, said on Saturday that his startup’s one-year-old premium offering had clocked $30 million in revenue.

 


0

How Bykea is winning Pakistan’s ride-hailing and delivery market

15:48 | 31 January

Increasingly, the streets of Karachi and Lahore are being flooded with men riding bikes and wearing green T-shirts, a writer friend recently told me. In a sense, these men represent the emergence of Pakistan’s tech startups.

India now has more than 25,000 startups and raised a record $14.5 billion last year, according to government figures. But not all Asian countries are as large as India or have such a thriving startup ecosystem. Long overdue, things are beginning to change in bordering Pakistan.

Bykea, a three-year-old ride-hailing and delivery service, today has more than 500,000 bikes registered on its platform. It operates in some of Pakistan’s most populated cities, such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, Muneeb Maayr, Bykea founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

Maayr is one of the most recognized startup founders in Pakistan, and previously worked for Rocket Internet, helping the giant run fashion e-commerce platform Daraz in the country. While leading Daraz, he expanded the platform to cater to categories beyond fashion; Daraz was later sold to Alibaba.

 


0

Apple to start online sales in India in Q3 this year

02:00 | 29 January

Apple’s much-awaited online store in India will be operational starting Q3 this year, a little longer than previously expected, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The iPhone-maker said in August last year that it was “eager to serve [customers of India] online and in-store with the same experience and care that Apple customers around the world enjoy.”

While the company never shared a firm timeline on when the online and brick-and-mortar stores would be set up in India, it was originally aiming to start the online sales in the country in the first quarter of this year, the source said. (The Q1 launch timeline was first signaled by Bloomberg, which reported that the operations would begin “within months.”)

An Apple spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

The source said the company was still working on the logistics of setting up the store and that the quarter between July and September was the new tentative deadline. Apple CEO Tim Cook would likely plan an India trip for the announcement, the source said.

India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers last year, paving the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they set up presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

Currently, Apple sells its products in India through partnered third-party offline retailers and e-commerce platforms such as Amazon India, Flipkart and Paytm Mall. Prior to New Delhi’s policy change, Apple had requested the government numerous times to relax the local foreign direct investment (FDI) rules.

Apple executives have long expressed disappointment at Amazon India, Flipkart and Paytm Mall for offering heavy discounts on the iPhone and MacBook Air to boost their respective GMV metrics, people familiar with the matter have told TechCrunch.

iPhone shipments in India grew 6% in 2019 compared with a 43% decline in 2018, according to research firm Counterpoint, which projected that the growth would continue this year.

Apple on Tuesday posted a record revenue of $91.8 billion for the quarter that ended in December. Cook said in the earnings call that India was among the markets where the company’s revenue grew in “double-digit.”

 


0

H1 Insights is giving the healthcare industry the ultimate professional database

04:52 | 28 January

I want to build a business which profiles every single researcher and healthcare professional in the world and I want to sell it to industry,” says Ariel Katz, the co-founder and chief executive of H1 Insights. 

With the healthcare industry on a mission to digitize and analyze every conceivable datapoint it can to wring more efficiencies out of its incredibly fragmented and broken system, for Katz, there’s no opportunity that seems more obvious than giving the industry data on its own professionals.

The idea may sound like nothing more than creating a LinkedIn for healthcare professionals, but building an accurate account of the professional ecosystem could be a huge help to businesses as diverse as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, insurers, and, eventually, consumers.

For Katz, it’s the continuation of a longstanding mission to create transparency for datasets that were previously opaque. Katz sold his first company, Research Connection (which became LabSpot), three years ago. That company was designed to uncover the research underway at universities around the country so students could see where they should apply for undergraduate and graduate studies.

After the sale the young entrepreneur went on a vacation to India, and it was there that he met his co-founder Ian Sax. “He backpacked there to follow his wife who was volunteering with Mother Theresa [and] ended up starting a staffing company.”

The two men became friends and collaborated on projects — including a software that would help medical school students find jobs.

Conversations between the two soon hit upon the lack of transparency around what research was happening at what universities and which clinical trials were underway at which hospitals. A visible network of experts, the two men thought, would go a long way toward solving a number of the healthcare industry’s seemingly intractable problems.

“Pharma, biotech, and medical devices spend $30 billion per year partnering with researchers and hospitals,” says Katz. “If you could allow a user sitting on the pharmaceutical side to sort and search and rank and analyze researchers… it would help reduce the cost and solve the problem.”

While Katz says the transparency can help solve a number of healthcare’s drug development and discovery problems, he’s wary about creating others. H1 Insights has built certain rules on how its database should be used, which Katz hopes will limit abuse.

“We don’t sell to sales and marketing arms at pharmaceutical companies,” he says. The risk there is that these sales and marketing arms could put undue pressure on doctors to skew research.

The data that H1 collects is already public, so there’s no need for the company to use user generated data to build out its dataset. “It’s all public. The biggest problem is de-duping it,” says Katz.

The company already has 350,000 academic researchers and 4 million healthcare professionals in its database already.

That body of knowledge was enough to attract Y Combinator, which accepted H1 Insight into its latest cohort of companies.

With the accelerator’s help, H1 Insights wants to take its business global and develop applications for the pharmaceutical industry, care providers and ultimately consumers.

The initial application for all of that data is clinical trials.

“The number one reason why clinical trials fail is recruitment,” says Katz. “If you can find a principal investigator who has done a successful clinical trial in an adjacent space,” pharma companies can improve their chances for success, according to Katz. 

 


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Adding India to your business

18:34 | 27 January

Kumar Shah Contributor
Kumar Shah is the founder of Transit Capital, a cross-border VC firm that partners with growth-stage entrepreneurs building global champions.

At the start of recruiting season in business school, a top-tier consulting firm sent an invite to the entire class: “over your career, you will either be sitting with us or across from us. We would like to get to know you.”

If you’re building a large-scale technology startup, sooner or later, you should be having a conversation about the Indian market. India’s growth is often compared to China’s, but the big difference between these two markets is that India has an open internet infrastructure, where the best product wins.

In the last decade, Indian consumers have enjoyed the trifecta of cheap smartphones (courtesy of Android), some of the lowest data rates on the planet (courtesy of Mukesh Ambani’s telecom firm Jio) and rising disposable income. Most consumer startups from the U.S., Europe and China have already seen a large number of users organically adopt their product as hundreds of millions of Indians have come online.

Some examples:

  • for most of 2018 and 2019, Tinder was the highest grossing app in India
  • Quora and Pinterest are consistently in the top 30 most visited websites
  • India is the largest or second-largest user base for Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Linkedin, Twitter, Snapchat and many other platforms

Snapchat, in particular, has seen tremendous growth in the Indian market. In March 2019, Snap launched eight new languages — five of which are spoken in India. Consequently, the company reported in Q3 2019 that 6 million out of the 7 million new Daily Active Users added were from outside the U.S. Snapchat’s stock is up almost 3x in the last year, well ahead of Nasdaq’s performance in the same period.

As a cross-border investment firm investing in U.S. and European companies to help them grow in India, we thought it would be useful to share our conversations with growth-stage entrepreneurs about the Indian market. In this article, we will focus on consumer-facing (B2C and B2B2C) companies.

What segment of India do you want to target first? 

While everyone thinks of India as a singular 1.3 billion-consumer market, there are, in fact, multiple sub-segments that have their own characteristics and are acquired differently. The India 1 segment, arguably the most lucrative, constitutes the 25+ million Indians who have credit cards, form the 10 million iPhone install base and were Netflix’s first 500,000 users in the country. The India 2 segment requires products that work in languages other than English and potentially different product features (such as voice input). Snapchat is now focused on acquiring India 2 users with its new language strategy.

What are the best ways to acquire users in this segment?

The short answer is — it depends. If you are in a category (such as gaming) that appeals to a broad demographic and geography, strategic partnerships with mobile OEMs or unicorns building super apps (Paytm and PhonePe for example) will give you a high-volume distribution channel. If you are a wellness app that is focused on India 1 users only, then it makes sense to prioritize channels or partnerships, such as hospital chains in Tier 1 cities, to acquire that segment of users. If you already have organic traction in the country, look at your analytics (for example, cities where your users are based, price range of phone models being used and so on) to understand your initial set of power users.

What is your monetization and pricing strategy? 

The monetization strategy that worked in your existing market(s) may not work in the Indian market. From both an addressable base of paying customers (see the install base of credit cards above) to the ARPU, Asian markets have significantly lagged their western counterparts.

The good news is that with the strong adoption of Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a first-of-its-kind payments protocol that can be implemented by third-party applications, there is almost no friction (or costs) to receive payment amounts as small as two cents. When in India, you should be using UPI.

While Tinder found success with subscription billing at U.S. prices, Netflix entered India with a ~$7/month billing plan in line with their global rates but realized that growth would only come through innovations such as mobile-only plans at $2.80/month. Apple and Spotify have been clear that they want to target the mass market and launched with plans that are close to $1.50/month, a significant discount to their U.S. and European plans.

While these companies have found success with subscription billing, more likely monetization models are advertising led (YouTube) or freemium. Are there features in your product that you can charge a premium for while still offering a subset of the product for free (and cover your direct costs through advertising)? Are there partnerships (such as the ones that Netflix and Amazon Video have signed with Indian telcos) where you can get paid indirectly for your core product?

Build your costs in line with your target segment and pricing

Now that you have a better idea of your target market size and expected pricing, you should build a cost structure that is in line with expected revenues. Most of the companies we track have acquired their first five million customers (or more) in India with an initial team of one to three people on the ground. From both a team build out as well as customer acquisition cost point of view, most companies have been disappointed that they have invested in resources well ahead of understanding the size of their target market and expected revenues.

Find a local partner

If you aren’t setting up a local team in the near term, we recommend having a local partner/shareholder that is aligned with your business and plans. From regular follow-ups on strategic conversations to keeping tabs on changes in regulations, having someone local who understands your business is critical to your entry and expansion plans. Similar to the scrutiny that internet companies face in other countries, India is also drafting regulations for localized data storage and mandating a local point of contact for companies that have more than 5 million users.

For entrepreneurs building global champions, having an India strategy is essential and can form the beachhead to expand into Southeast Asia and the Middle East. As Mary Meeker has repeatedly noted in her annual report, India and Indonesia will be the first and third-largest open internet markets in the world.

What excites our team is that India is already home to significant user bases for early and growth-stage private companies such as Truecaller (100 million daily users), Quora (second largest market), Duolingo (10 million users), Brainly (20 million users), Wattpad (3 million users) and Vyng (14 million installs), while others such as FlixBus are actively setting up operations.

We hope you found the above information helpful. And if you are building a global technology company, we would like to get to know you.

 


0

An adult sexting site exposed thousands of models’ passports and driver’s licenses

20:28 | 24 January

A popular sexting website has exposed thousands of photo IDs belonging to models and sex workers who earn commissions from the site.

SextPanther, an Arizona-based adult site, stored over 11,000 identity documents on an exposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage bucket, including passports, driver’s licenses, and Social Security numbers, without a password. The company says on its website that it uses to verify the ages of models who users communicate with.

Most of the exposed identity documents contain personal information, such as names, home addresses, dates of birth, biometrics, and their photos.

Although most of the data came from models in the U.S., some of the documents were supplied by workers in Canada, India, and the United Kingdom.

The site allows models and sex workers to earn money by exchanging text messages, photos, and videos with paying users, including explicit and nude content. The exposed storage bucket also contained over a hundred thousand photos and videos sent and received by the workers.

It was not immediately clear who owned the storage bucket. TechCrunch asked U.K.-based penetration testing company Fidus Information Security, which has experience in discovering and identifying exposed data, to help.

Researchers at Fidus quickly found evidence suggesting the exposed data could belong to SextPanther.

An hour after we alerted the site’s owner, Alexander Guizzetti, to the exposed data, the storage bucket was pulled offline.

“We have passed this on to our security and legal teams to investigate further. We take accusations like this very seriously,” Guizzetti said in an email, who did not explicitly confirm the bucket belonged to his company.

Using information from identity documents matched against public records, we contacted several models whose information was exposed by the security lapse.

“I’m sure I sent it to them,” said one model, referring to her driver’s license which was exposed. (We agreed to withhold her name given the sensitivity of the data.) We passed along a photo of her license as it found in the exposed bucket. She confirmed it was her license, but said that the information on her license is no longer current.

“I truly feel awful for others whom have signed up with their legit information,” she said.

The security lapse comes a week after researchers found a similar cache of highly sensitive personal information of sex workers on adult webcam streaming site, PussyCash.

More than 850,000 documents were insecurely stored in another unprotected storage bucket.

Read more:


Got a tip? You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755–8849.

 


0

Meet the b2b videoconferencing startup that’s gone crazy for online dating

13:51 | 24 January

Founder Andreas Kröpfl has spent almost a decade hard-grafting in the b2b unified communications space, building a videoconferencing business with a patented single-stream system and a claim of no ‘drop-offs’ thanks to “unique low-bandwidth technology”.

His Austria-based startup’s current web-based videoconferencing system, eyeson (née Visocon), which launched in 2018, has had some nice traction since launch, as he tells it, garnering a few million customers and getting a nomination nod as a Gartner Cool Vendor last year.

Eyeson’s website touts ‘no hassle, no, lag, no downloads’ video calls. Pricing options for the target b2b users run the gamut from freelance pro to full-blown enterprise. While the business itself has pulled in a smidge less than $7M in investor funding over the years.

But when TechCrunch came across Kröpfl last December, pitching hard in startup alley at Disrupt Berlin, he was most keen to talk about something else entirely: Video dating.

That’s because last summer the team decided to branch out by building their own video dating app, reusing their core streaming tech for a consumer-focused social experiment. And after a period of internal beta testing — which hopefully wasn’t too awkward within a small (up-til-then) b2b-focused team — they launched an experimental dating app in November in India.

The app, called Ahoi, is now generating 100,000 video calls and 250,000 swipes per day, says Kröpfl.

This is where he breaks into a giggle. The traction has been crazy, he says. 

In the staid world of business videoconferencing you can imagine eyeson’s team eyeing the booming growth of certain consumer-focused video products rather enviously.

Per Kröpfl, they had certainly noticed different desires among their existing users — which pushed them to experiment. “We saw that private people like the simple fun features (GIF reactions, …) and that business meetings were more focused on ‘drop-off’ [rates] and business features,” he tells us. “To improve both in one product was not working any more. So eyeson goes business plus SaaS.”

“Cloning eyeson but make it social,” is how he sums up the experiment. 

Ahoi is very evidently an MVP at this stage. It also looks like a pretty brave and/or foolish (depending on your view) full-bore plunge into video dating, with nothing so sophisticated as a privacy screen to prevent any, er, unwanted blushes… (Whereas safety screening is an element we’ve recently seen elsewhere in the category — see: Blindlee.)

There’s also seemingly no way for users to specify the gender they wish to talk to.

Instead, Ahoi users state interests by selecting emoji stickers — such as a car, cat, tennis racket, games console or globetrotter. And, well, it goes without saying that even if you like cars a lot you’re unlikely to change your sexual orientation over the category.

There are no generic emoji that could be used to specify a sexual interest in men or women. But, er, there’s a horse…

Such limits may explain why Ahoi is generating so many early swipes — and rather fewer actual calls — in that the activity sums to (mostly) men looking for women to videochat with and being matched with, er, men.

And frustration, sexual or otherwise, probably isn’t the greatest service to try and sell.

Still, Kröpfl reckons they’ve landed on a winning formula that makes handy reuse of their core videoconferencing tech — letting them growth hack in a totally new category. Swipe right to video date.

“People are disappointed by perfect profiles on Tinder and the reality when meeting people,” he posits. “Wasted time. Especially women do not want to be stalked by men pretending to be someone else. We solve both by a real live conversation where only after a call both can decide to be connected or never see each other again.”

Notably, marketing around the app does talk rather fuzzily about it being a way to “find new pals”.

So while Kröpfl frames the experiment as dating, the reality of the product is more ‘open to options’. Think of it as a bit like Chatroulette — just with slightly more control (in that you have a few seconds to decide if you don’t want to talk to the next in-app match).

The very short countdown timer (you get just five seconds to opt out of a matched video chat) is very likely generating a fair number of unintended calls. Though such high velocity matching might appeal to a certain kind of speed dating addict.

Kröpfl says Ahoi has been seeing up to 20,000 new users added daily. They’re bullishly targeting 3M+ users this year, and already toying with ideas for turning video dates into a money spinner by offering stuff like premium subscriptions and/or video ads. He says the plan is to turn Ahoi into a business “step by step”.

“Everyone loves to make his profile better,” he suggests, floating monetization options down the line. Quality filtering for a fee is another possibility (“everyone is annoyed by being connected to the wrong people”).

They picked India for the test launch because it has a lot of people on the same timezone, a large active mobile user-base and cheap marketing is still “easily possible”. He also says that dating apps seemed popular there, in their experience. (Albeit, the team presumably didn’t have a great deal of relevant experience in this category — given Ahoi is an experiment.)

The intent is also to open Ahoi up to other markets in time too, once they get more accustomed to dealing with all the traffic. Kröpfl notes they had to briefly take the app off the store last month, as they worked on adding more server capability.

“It is very early and we were not prepared for this usage,” he says, admitting they’ve been “struggling to work on early feedbacks”. “We had to make it invisible temporarily — to improve server capacity and stability.”

The contrast in pace of uptake between the stolid (but revenue-generating) world of business meeting-fuelled videoconferencing and catnip consumer dating — which is money-sucking unless or until you can hit a critical mass of usage and get the chance to try applying monetization strategies — does sound like it’s been rather irresistible to Kröpfl.

Asked what it feels like to go from one category to the other he says “crazy, surprised and thrilling”, adding: “It is somehow also frustrating when all the intense b2b work is not as closely interesting to people as Ahoi is. But amazing that it is possible thanks to an extremely focused and experienced team. I love it.” 

TechCrunch’s Manish Singh agreed to brave the local video dating app waters in India to check Ahoi out for us.

He reported back not having seen any women using the app. Which we imagine might be a problem for Ahoi’s longer term prospects — at least in that market.

“I spoke with one guy, who said his friend told him about the app. He said he joined to talk to girls but so far, he is only getting matched with boys,” said Singh. “I saw several names appear on the app, but all of them were boys, too.”

He told us he was left wondering “why people are on these apps, and why they have so much free time on a weekday”.

For ‘people’ it seems safe to conclude that most of Ahoi’s early adopters are men. As the Wall Street Journal reported back in 2018, India’s women are famously cool on dating apps — in that they’re mostly not on them. (We asked Kröpfl about Ahoi’s gender breakdown but he didn’t immediately get back to us on that.)

That market quirk means those female users who are on dating apps tend to get bombarded with messages from all the lonely heart guys with not much to swipe. Which, in turn, could make a video dating app like Ahoi an unattractive prospect to female users — if there’s any risk at all of being inundated with video chats.

And even if there are enough in-app controls to prevent unwelcome inundation by default, women also might not feel like they want their profile to be seen by scores of men simply by merit of being signed up to an app — as seems inevitable if the gender balance is so skewed.

Add to that, if the local perception among single women is that men on dating apps are generally a turn-off — because they’re too eager/forward — then jumping into any unmoderated video chat is probably not the kind of safe space these women are looking for.

No matter, Kröpfl and his team are clearly having far too much fun growth hacking in an unfamiliar, high velocity consumer category to sweat the detail. 

What’s driving Ahoi’s growth right now? “Performance marketing mainly,” he says, pointing also to “viral engagement by sharing and liking profiles”.

Notably, there are already a lot of reviews of Ahoi on Google Play — an unusual amount for such an early app. Many of them appear to be five star write-ups from accounts with European-sounding names and a sometimes robotic grasp of language.

“Eventhough Ahoi has been developed recently, it had high quality for user about calling, making friends and widing your knowlegde [sic],” writes one reviewer with atrocious spelling whose account is attached to the name ‘Dustin Stephens.’

“Talking with like minded people and same favor will creat a fun and interesting atmosphere. Ahoi will manage for you to call like condition above,” says another apparently happy but confused-sounding user, going by the name ‘Elisa Herring’.

There’s also a ‘Madeleine Mcghin’, whose profile uses a photo of the similarly named child who infamously disappeared during a holiday in Portugal in 2007. “My experience with this app was awesome,” this individual writes. “It gives me the option to find new people in every country.”

Another less instantly tasteless five-star reviewer, ‘Stefania Lucchini’, leaves a more surreal form of praise. “A good app and it will bring you extra income, I would say it’s a great opportunity to have AHOI and be a part of it but it’s that it will automatically ban you even if you don’t show it. Marketing. body part, there are still 5 stars for me,” she (or, well, ‘it’) writes.

Among the plethora of dubious five-star reviews a couple of one-star dunks stand out — not least because they come from accounts with names that sound like they might actually come from India. “Waste u r time,” says one of these, using the name Prajal Pradhan.

This pithy drop-kick has been given a full 72 thumbs-up by other Play Store users.

 


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