With 400 million smartphones and penetration of cheap 4G data, Indians in tier III, IV and rural belts are experiencing the Internet for the first time. Such users comprise over two-third (750 million plus) of the second most populous country inhabiting 1.3 billion citizens. They need platforms where they can consume, create, and express content in their own languages.
This demand has triggered the growth of several local and Chinese vernacular content apps – primarily ShareChat, TikTok, Dailyhunt, Kwai, Bigo Live, NewsDog and Helo among others.
These apps curate never-ending entertainment supply as well as local news and information in languages of users – i.e; Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, with the help of their participation. Besides entrepreneurs, VCs and strategic investors are also convinced about the potential of local content and social space.
Such validation for content business has come from China where several companies including Toutiao (parent entity of TikTok, the world’s highest-valued private company) and Kuaishou (aka Kwai) have grown to become large entities.
Chinese believe that India will also produce two-three large companies in content and social media space. Counting on this belief, Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka, founders of Vokal, conceptualised voice-based knowledge sharing platform Vokal.
It’s a user-generated content (UGC) platform, which allows users to question and answer by means of voice or text. The platform aims to reach out to a non-English speaking population in India and do what Zhihu, a highly successful Quora-like Q&A platform, in China has done.
A report by KPMG and Google also highlight opportunity in the vernacular content segment on the back of the rising number of Internet users in smaller cities and rural India. The joint report estimates that there are 250 million vernacular internet users. It is expected to reach around 600 million in the next two years.
This number is only going to grow because smartphones are becoming affordable and data is getting commoditized.
Despite Quora’s attempt to acquire a vernacular audience, it has so far failed to captivate them. And, the reason is simple. Quora is inherently built for English speakers.
India emerged as a major market after the US for the knowledge sharing but it’s not going to scale beyond 100 million. At least that’s what past trends show.
Quora served India but Bharat requires Zhihu. “There is a need for a high-quality content platform in Indian languages. Vokal aspires to be a default destination for knowledge sharing across categories that impact vernacular users the most,” said Aprameya.
He emphasised that to keep an unflinching focus, the platform doesn’t have English as an option.
Our reasoning for asserting the analogy that Vokal seems more like Zhihu as a product than Quora based on similarities in approach and features.
As Zhihu did in China, Vokal is trying to turn into an important window for issues that are likely to impact the vernacular audience. Such topics range from love to career, life, and motivation.
Similar to Zhihu’s, Vokal features a long feed of questions and answers. Further, both apps have influencers who respond to questions with a sound recorded answer. They also make use of the ‘upvote’ and ‘downvote’ buttons far more frequently than Quora users.
Launched in October 2017, Vokal claims to register 1,000 questions every day. “We are growing over 30 percent and have crossed 1 million monthly active users (MAU),” adds Aprameya.
Started out with Hindi, Vokal now caters Kannada and Tamil audience as well. In May, it also had acquired StupidChat, which is ramping up the quizzing segment for the year-old firm.
Investors who tasted success with Apremeya’s previous startup – TaxiForSure – are optimistic about Vokal’s success. Blume Venture and Accel Partners along with Kalaari Capital and 500 Startups have invested over $6 million in the Bengaluru-based company.
Aprameya appears bullish on Vokal’s future in the knowledge sharing segment. “We aim to achieve 100 million MAU mark in the next 18 months.”
Although Aprameya doesn’t admit any inspiration either from Quora or Zhihu, there is more merit in taking a leaf out of latter’s success.
Not only Zhihu is neck to neck in terms of scale with Quora, but it also boasts of a higher valuation than its US peer. Quora is valued about $1.8 billion during the last financing round while Zhihu’s valuation had soared to $2.5 billion.
As of August this year, Zhihu claimed to have more than 200 million registered users on its platform. Quora’s user base also said to have 200 million users across the world.
Can Vokal replicate such scale in India? Will users pay for the content as Zhihu users do, especially in India where most of the internet users belong to lower income group?
Aprameya is optimistic.
“There are use cases where people have shown willingness to pay for right content, primarily in education and career counselling knowledge verticals,” he concludes.
Will Vokal overcome obstacles and be able to write similar success stories as Zhihu did in China?
The possibility can’t be ruled out. Vokal is a story that has just begun. And its performance in the coming year will only tell us how far it will go.