Barbarians at the Gates: Consumer tech companies will eat banks’ lunch

It’s just a matter of time – the legacy banks will start losing revenue if they don’t re-imagine themselves

In India, the banking sector has undergone a drastic transformation in the last few years. But it won’t stop here, even greater disruptions are ahead.

The shift towards digital is being fueled by the changing demographics in India – by 2020, the average age of a banking customer in India will be 29 years. This young consumer base, that has grown up with smartphones, is internet savvy, expects everything in real time and will demand more from the Indian banking sector. And India already has the 2nd largest smartphone user base in the world, which is expected to grow to 750M by 2020.


The banks have, for far too long, relied on their physical reach through branches. But with the ongoing digital revolution and changing customer preferences, the dynamics will change soon. Seamless experiences, personalized banking and customer centricity will become the key to acquiring and retaining customers.

The introduction and evolution of the infrastructure created by the government – India Stack (Aadhaar authentication, eKYC, DigiLocker, UPI, eSign etc.) will ironically make it easier for innovative tech companies to disrupt in months, what would have taken them years to do earlier. While this may not lead to large banks losing business immediately, the pie will have more takers and companies which are able to provide the best customer experience will win in the long run.

We don’t have to look far to realize the disruptions created by technology. Uber, the largest cab company in the world, was created amid rising smartphone adoption by innovative use of GPS, maps and data (their building blocks) all of which were accessible by anyone to build a similar company. OTT messaging apps like WhatsApp have more or less replaced texting (SMS) in the last 4-5yrs. Going from a drizzle to a storm can be a matter of a few quarters (maybe 10-12) in this digital age.

This pace of change is unusual for a regulated industry. Here are some reasons why it is crucial for banks to handle it well:

1.    Their competition isn’t with other banks: The banking customer today is being wooed by the richest men in top 4 economies of the world – USA (Jeff Bezos – Amazon Pay), China (Jack Ma – PayTM), India (Mukesh Ambani – Jio Money), and Japan (Masayoshi Son – Flipkart/PhonePe). This is without counting Mark Zuckerberg, whose WhatsApp is likely to launch P2P payments, further intermediating the relationship between customers and their banks. Such players will create innovative products, reimagined for the digital customer. Banks will be competing against these super rich entrepreneurs and their highly agile, user experience (UX) focused consumer internet companies, rather than just other banks or telcos.

2.    Trust alone cannot save the banks: Banking industry veterans feel that trust is a commodity that’s scarce – and that is correct. However, these new competitors will build trust with the younger Indians through reliability, branding, discounts and high repeat behaviour. It is very likely that in a few years, a few consumer mobile apps will hold inordinate control over the banking customer.

3.    The machines are coming: The future will belong to sophisticated artificial intelligence models that require a lot of data. Data will become more difficult to get as it gets used better (e.g. Android permissions will become stricter). So unless the user is engaging with you on your mobile app, it will be difficult to capture useful data (which will enable some apps to build much better micro lending models than others). Whoever engages frequently with the customers, develops the strongest relationships and really knows their customers, will win the war of algorithms.

In a nutshell, the challenge is: can banks become platforms before platforms become banks?

A McKinsey & Company report estimates that banks which do not digitize more fully within the next 3-5 years, could see up to 35% of their net profits eroded. In China, Ant Financial (AliPay) and WeChat are already posing a significant threat to banks and financial service providers. A cursory visit to China is sufficient to know that the things have changed on the ground – people are paying for a lot of things using these two apps. Both have risen very quickly and processed US$2.9 trillion in payments in 2016 compared to just US$81.6 Bn in 2012.2 Both Alibaba (AliPay) and Tencent (WeChat) have now launched their own “Internet Banks” – MyBank and WeBank to start collecting deposits directly from customers and providing personal, corporate and international banking services.

In Europe, on the other hand, a majority of the traditional banks have won by partnering or co-opting fin-tech start-ups. BBVA, a multinational Spanish banking group, was one of the first to recognize the technological disruption headed their way. Way back in 2013, their Chairman Francisco González explained, “Some bankers and analysts think that Google, Facebook, Amazon or the like will not fully enter a highly regulated, low-margin business such as banking. I disagree. What is more, I think banks that are not prepared for such new competitors face certain death.” BBVA has been on an acquisition spree lately and has successfully acquired few good startups in the last couple of years.

Given the current situation in India, banks need to take a myriad of proactive steps:

  • Start benchmarking against consumer internet companies not just in terms of customer experience but long term outlook and corresponding investments. Otherwise, it might end up being a classic study of the kind of disruption described by Clayton Christensen. Too much focus on NIM (net interest margins), QoQ growth and analyst expectations can be harmful if it happens at the expense of the future. It’s a great opportunity for an entrepreneurial bank CEO.
  • Develop separate teams / companies / subsidiaries which have a separate culture and run their digital banks / other initiatives from the ground up without any legacy issues – software, or human.
  • Start making big bets on tech start-ups. If they wish to compete with likes of Paytm, Jio and other consumer internet companies, they need to either buyout or invest into agile tech startups. This would not only give them a winning product but also bring in an energetic young team into their fold, which otherwise would not have worked for a bank.
  • Ensure that the role of the Chief Digital Officer and the CTO/CIO is given sufficient leeway and they are supported over multiple year strategy roadmaps rather than be judged quickly
  • Start creating models which leverage data to personalize products for their customers

In the above light, Axis Bank’s recent acquisition of Freecharge for US$60M and Bajaj Finance’s US$35M investment into Mobikwik for a ~10% stake makes a lot of sense. This would help them both grow fast inorganically and give them an edge on product innovation.

However, most banks are not doing enough. Perhaps the time to act is now. Such periods of chaos should be viewed as a ladder, not a pit.

Ankur Singla is the founder and CEO of Tapzo, India’s first all in one app backed by Sequoia Capital. He is a graduate of National Law School, Bangalore.


A version of this article appeared in the Economic Times on 2 September 2017.

Sources: IAMAI-IMRB report, UN report, McKinsey & Company report

Image Credit:


The mobile app industry’s worst-kept secret

One of the worst kept secrets of the mobile app industry is that almost all apps (except for the top 5-8 apps) see 60-80% uninstall rate within 90 days of users installing the app. India probably has the highest uninstall rate in the world – so when an app says it has 20M installs, you can do your math.

The big question is why?

We started digging deeper into this phenomenon and have interviewed more than 750+ people on their mobile habits over the last one year. These people were between 22-30 years old, predominantly males living in the top 5 cities in India.

Here is the split for reasons why Indians uninstall their apps:



While they may understand the other issues, the reason that most of the startup community – founders, investors, product managers etc.- don’t understand the storage issue well is that they mostly use high storage iPhones. If they use Android, the device of choice is OnePlus – again a high end phone with high storage.

Some anecdotal evidence

I send out a short and simple email asking every user who has uninstalled our app: “Why did you uninstall the Tapzo app?”


I read through all these emails diligently (even though sometimes I am unable to reply).

Lack of storage comes out as a big reason. Here are some sample replies:

The mobile app industry’s worst kept secret Lest I forget.png

While the answer for us is to keep improving the app (so that the user feels that Tapzo is one app he can’t remove), the mails just give you a sense of the problem.

Actually, the average Android user might see a screen like this 1-2 times a month whenever he tries to install new apps:


Another indicator: apps like CleanMaster scaled to 50M+ installs in India without spending much on acquisition because of helping users users clean up junk files/apps/images from their phones. For most commerce-based companies, that kind of customer acquisition would cost about $US70M! That’s the difference between push v. pull.

Why is storage such a big problem?

To understand things further, we also sampled 2,500,000 Android users to understand the extent of the problem. The average Indian’s smart phone costs Rs.6000-12000. The typical configuration at the lower end of this spectrum is a phone with a 8GB storage space.

Here’s the typical storage split of this 8GB storage space:

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 3.52.15 pm.png

In a world where the Android OS and WhatsApp takes up almost 50% of the user’s phone space, even the Facebook app ends up being uninstalled: our research showed that while 97% of the users have the WhatsApp app, only 68% users have the Facebook app. If Facebook app is being uninstalled (of course, users use it through their mobile browsers), what hope do other apps have!

The problem is here to stay with us

There are upward and downward pressures on storage constraints in the phone:

Things that will alleviate the problem:
– Storage prices should drop over the next few years
– Some cloud storage services (like Google Pictures) will pick up and better UX for external storage will evolve

Things that will ensure that storage continues to be a problem:
– Our data showed an interesting paradox: the moment the user has more storage, a bigger chunk of it gets allocated to WhatsApp, videos and photos. Somehow, the amount of storage used for apps doesn’t increase that much (20% more for 2X space).
– 600M Indians on feature phones will first migrate to smart phones with limited storage capacities (<16GB).

So we are likely to see storage being a real problem for the Indian users for the next 5-6 years at least, if not more.

So, how does one reduce their app uninstall rate?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to manage this because your app is competing with a Sunny Leone video or pictures in their family WhatsApp groups.

But here are some (obvious) hacks:

– make something people want (most basic part – just explore the top 500 apps on the Google PlayStore to get a sense)
– get the first time user experience (FTUE) right
– allow for the app to work on an external SD card (easier said that done)
– keep the app size on disk super small
– do deep app indexing so that the chances are that user gets reminded about your app frequently enough to use it
– personalise notifications, your app etc. in the hope that it will lead to better engagement
– pray that when the user is cleaning up his phone, he forgets about your app. 🙂


Some additional reading:

New data shows losing 80% of mobile users is normal, and why the best apps do better

What is considered a good or bad uninstall rate for a free Android app?


Best books of 2016

2016 was a great year on all fronts. I became a dad; found great strength by raising money in a tough environment; Tapzo grew 14X in transactions. Also, I got back to reading a lot.

My reading picked up since I bought a Kindle PaperWhite – somehow the impulsive purchase of a book (not waiting for 3-4 days for it to arrive by which time you’re distracted by other things), having multiple books to read and crappy Internet UI on Kindle made my reading time a lot more productive.

I sometimes wonder why there’s no word in any language (like the word “schadenfreude”) which describes that feeling of “looking forward to going home to read a book that you are really enjoying and wouldn’t want to get over, but still wanting to keep reading as fast as possible”. When there are words for so many other such things, why not this? Any suggestions? How about “buchfreude”?

Anyway, here’s the list of books I really enjoyed reading in 2016 (they could have been published earlier):

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 8.02.36 pm.png

1. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (5 stars)

The book that created the most amount of “buchfreude” in me. What a story and how well told (makes you want to keep regular notes of your own life)! Favourite book of the year. Reinforced the belief that it pays to stay in the game and never give in. And reminded me of Ben Horowitz’s statement (paraphrasing): entrepreneurship is like playing 3D chess, there’s always a move!

2. Half Lion by Vinay Sitapati (5 stars)

Vinay is a senior of mine for NLS, so I had to pick up the book. It’s a really solid book – well researched, very well written (tight sentences, no frills etc.) And the book does a brilliant job in judging Rao’s actions by the amount of information he had available while taking a decision. As a CEO, you face this all the time: information is limited and hindsight is 20:20.

The book also cites another quote by Rao, which I loved:


The book made it to the list of top books of the year by The Economist, no less.

3. Alibaba: The House Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark (4 stars)

I hadn’t read this because I thought that I would have heard more about the book if there was good stuff in it. But the book did have a lot of good stuff – the early days of Alibaba, the fight with e-Bay, relationship with Yahoo and Softbank and the controversies along the way. But the book doesn’t reveal much about Jack Ma’s personal working style.

4. Elon Musk: How the Billionaire… by Ashlee Vance (4 stars)

Great book though the last 1/4th of the book wasn’t very strong when it began sounding like PR for SpaceX. The chapter on “Pain, Suffering and Survival” about the worst time for Musk in 2008 is golden. Similar to Shoe Dog, the struggle to build a business is crazy. Lesson to self: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

5. The Unusual Billionaires by Saurabh Mukherjea (4 stars)

Good book but maybe more so because I don’t read about the things they talk about: the story of Asian Paints, Berger Paints, Astral Poly etc. The best discovery was the IBAS framework by John Kay which I blogged about – Thinking about moats. Still haven’t gotten round to reading the original book by John Kay called Foundations of Corporate Success.

6. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout (5 stars)

The book was recommended in Tools of Titans. Couldn’t have read it at a more opportune time as we prepared for our TV campaign. Though written in 1993, its laws are truly immutable. The most important one is the Law of the Category. I must have highlighted almost half the book. Great read. Focusses on the basics. The case study of Avis versus Hertz rivalry itself cited in the book is worth reading. See this Slate article.

7. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (5 stars)

I liked his history of cancer (Emperor of all Maladies) better maybe because that was the first time I had read the history of a biological “thing” and it just blew me away. I remember reading it over a couple of months and feeling down reading about the experiments on children with leukaemia in the 1950s. The Gene doesn’t pack such a punch but it’s great nevertheless. The “intimate” part in the title is more of a story-telling device rather than something that’s essential to the book. The story of Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas and how he wasn’t recognised till much later makes for great reading.

8. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss (4 stars)

I think Naval Ravikant recommended the book somewhere and I picked it up. It’s a summary of 100s of podcasts that Tim Ferriss has done over the years. That makes it read more like a reference manual and a recommendation engine: some of the most successful people in the world suggest their favourite books, documentaries, beliefs, practices etc. Too much compressed gyan. I read it page by page in one go, and that’s not a great way to read a reference manual. Loved the “fear visualisation” practice discussed in the book.

Books which I started but haven’t completed yet:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The Fifth Disciple: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation by Peter M Senge
Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Which books did you like in 2016? Any recommendations for me?


From Helpchat to Tapzo: Lots in a name

As I had mentioned in a previous post, Moving away from chat: Hard-earned lessons, we moved away from a chat interface almost 10 months ago in January 2016. Since then we’ve grown 13X on daily transactions (today we do 55,000 per day). However, our app didn’t have any chat but it still continued to be called Helpchat. This was confusing for our users – in fact several customers pointed the mismatch out to us. We took the decision to rebrand to Tapzo – based on the idea of ‘many apps in one tap’.

Here are the things we learned from this journey:

– Don’t change the name if you can avoid it. The condition for this, of course, is that your current name should work for your product or business evolution. E.g. Snapdeal decided to stick to its name despite evolving to an e-commerce model. We wish we could have kept our name but it would have been misleading at multiple levels. We needed to focus on the experience of our future 100M users.

– Keep the name as easy and as short as possible. Check for all cultural connotations in similar –sounding words. In India, given our many languages and accents, phonetic quality is super-important. The name should roll easily off tongues across the country.

– It helps to read about how others handled their rebranding – the beauty of the branding exercise is that after some time, people hardly remember the old names. E.g. how many people remember that Axis Bank was once called UTI Bank (the board even contacted people in the USA to check whether negative World War II connotations were okay!). Vodafone changed its name 4 times – Hutchison Max to Orange to Hutch to Vodafone. Zomato was once called FoodieBay. The triggers were different in each case but the overall re-branding challenges were the same and there are several things you can learn from them.

– Whenever possible retain the brand equity that you’ve built. For example, Snapchat dropped “chat” and kept “Snap”. The reverse it also true – Fevicol named its instant adhesive as Fevikwik, thereby lending credibility of the master brand immediately. We thought of doing the same but the word “Help” doesn’t communicate what we do (and is impossible to register legally).

– Think carefully about the strategy for your other brand assets. If you want to signal something completely new, then overhaul your logo, colours, communication, etc. For us, everything is the same, except for the name. That’s why we kept our visual identity consistent with our old one. We felt this would give our existing users more comfort and familiarity.

– Finding a name that your employees and customers will like on day 1 is near impossible. Make them part of the process to whatever extent possible (We did an employee poll and communicated the process regularly). We also ran a user contest and got over 900 name suggestions.

– Name availability criteria have become stricter (domain name, Play Store, App Store, trademark, unique etc.). Domain name is nearly impossible to get, so people put suffixes and prefixes e.g. or Trademark is very tricky too. Though usually founders don’t care too much about trademarks, we were a bit conservative on this front. This is our second rename and we didn’t want to have any sort of trademark challenge later. This struck off a LOT of options since phonetic similarity also becomes an issue and lawyers even try spelling variations of your name.

Okay, let’s say you overcame the long list above and actually found a name. Most people will react with “Interesting” or an expression that says that ‘the name is ok but surely you could have done better?’. I’m guessing one should not worry overly about it. All brands are only worth the brand equity that is built into them which finally comes from the product and brand experience.

Helpchat is now Tapzo

Helpchat is now Tapzo

Here is some learning on how to proceed once you’ve found a name:

  • The best piece of advice I received was: “Don’t give a fuck about anyone other than your customers. The Twitter echo chamber isn’t your customer”.
  • Transition for your customers
    • The main goal of a rebrand should be that your customers’ transition is smooth. We created a checklist of different forms of communications (mails, SMS, notifications etc.) and timing. If we screwup on this even with extensive checklists, I’ll share more details here. 🙂
    • We also had to ensure that messaging is correct – customers’ know that the product is exactly the same and that their Helpchat cash etc. will work as it is
    • Create a proper customer support response to the rename
    • Inform all other stakeholders
  • Emails to inform everyone else who matters (investors, employees, partners) etc. about the change – they should never find it from someone else.
  • Do a press release so that the media also gets to know what you want to communicate.

Final thought: Choose a name that allows for business growth. That’s where we went wrong with Helpchat (though we didn’t know it at that time). You need to balance this with the need to quickly get your message across – especially if you are creating a category like we are (names like Facebook, TrueCaller, PayTM etc. deliver their product message quite well).

We liked Tapzo because the word “tap” has many meanings. We help our users tap into the power of apps, we provide apps on a tap of a finger, we offer a never-ending flow of apps from a tap (like beer or water). The fact that tapping on a mobile screen is the current form factor and can be used to land our message very quickly is a great bonus (one tap and you get many apps). But if this form factor changes, we won’t have to change our name.

All in all, it has been a tiring but rewarding experience to go through this rebranding exercise. Do share your learning around this topic, if any.


Thinking about moats

One of the common questions that people ask of internet entrepreneurs is: what is the moat of your business? Unless you are building a business with real lock-in network effects (like say Facebook), most internet businesses in India don’t have any obvious moats. Most of the UI can be replicated and in some ways the amount of capital you can raise quickly becomes a moat of a kind (but it is hardly a great way to build a business).

Till recently I used to answer this question saying the speed of execution is the only moat in internet businesses – that if you can outrun your competition, you can win. I never thought deeper about it.

Then I read this book called Unusual Billionaires by Saurabh Mukherjee (who heads Ambit Capital). It includes a chapter on how to evaluate moats in a business.

This quote from Warren Buffet sums up the challenge of doing so:

“No formula in finance tells you that the moat is 28 feet wide and 16 feet deep. That’’s what drives the academics crazy. They can compute standard deviations and betas, but they can’’t understand moats. Maybe I’’m being too hard on the academics.”

Here is a framework called IBAS by John Kay, a British economist, which helps one understand moats better.

I – Innovation – how quickly is the firm innovating (difficult to keep pulling this off as a moat)
B – Brand – how solid the brand is with customers (should be more investment focus for tech companies)
A – Architecture – how is the firm and it’s relationships with others structured (org design, contracts negotiated etc. etc.)
S – Strategic assets – like licenses etc.

Of all the above, “Brand” was the most obvious one but the least well understood by tech entrepreneurs in my view (the strong performance marketing bias of online advertising blinds most of the entrepreneurs to the value of investing in brands). This is in my mind a brilliant excerpt from Zero to One:

Zero to One

And the most interesting one was about “Architecture” – you don’t really think about this as a moat or an advantage but when you say the speed or the passion or the people or org design or org processes or third-party arrangements etc help you win, it is this notion of the architecture that comes into play.

I would highly recommend reading the book – Unusual Billionaires and the about the IBAS framework.


Gotta serve somebody

One of my favourite songs (written by Bob Dylan) goes like this:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Recently, I read this amusing anecdote about how Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister of India fancied himself as the Deng Xiaoping of India – as two leaders who brought in sweeping economic changes to their respective countries. When he visited China on an official trip, he expressed his wish to meet Deng (who had by then retired). Deng politely refused. Apparently he was hurt at having been asked to meet someone from a non-Gandhi family!

Another anecdote is about Sonia Gandhi making him wait for 3-4 mins on the phone. Rao is believed to have said: ‘I don’t mind waiting, but the PM of India minds”. (Source: Vinay Sitapati’s excellent book on Narasimha Rao called Half-Lion).

Another interesting anecdote is about Bill Clinton being refused memberships of golf clubs after his presidency got over. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times Magazine article:

“The mulligan-loving ex-president was snubbed by four of the prestigious Westchester County golf clubs he reportedly tried to join. As Trump marveled to me at the time: “Now Clinton can’t get into golf clubs in Westchester. A former president begging to get in a golf club. It’s unthinkable.”

And finally I recently heard about a billionaire internet entrepreneur in India whose investor refuses to reply to his emails.

I guess there must be close to 200-500 people that even the President of the US can’t get access to (international leaders, people of differing ideologies etc.) even if he/she wanted to.

Isn’t it beautiful that no matter how big or successful you become there are some things that you can’t have?


Lord of Apps: Does the future belong to multi-purpose apps?

Jim Barksdale, once the CEO of Netscape, famously said that there were only two ways to make money he knew of: bundling and unbundling. And the Internet world seems to be coming a full circle on this count. The early years of the Internet and 2000s were the years of portals: bundled monoliths that became one-stop shops encompassing all needs. For example, Yahoo, Google, Craigslist, Justdial etc. bundled all major use-cases for consumers. Then with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, apps fundamentally changed this bundled world into one of unbundled experiences. You could now have an app for literally anything – each app handling a specific need.

Too many apps...

Too many apps…


And slowly, the wheel is turning again. From the world of unbundled apps, the next 4-5 years will be about bundling multiple use cases into one app / portal, until, I imagine, the next wave of unbundling comes across because of different form factors.

Let’s try to understand why bundling is happening: the Indian (and the Asian consumer) market is dominated by Android and for a lot of these users, their mobile phone is the first computing device for them. The current app paradigm requires these users to discover an app for every task/company, install a new app, which takes up space on their phones and costs them data when downloading and updating. This is asking for a lot. In addition, more apps end up ruining the user experience by slowing down their phones.

In addition to the inconvenience, there’s the problem of phone space – the average app fights against WhatsApp for space on the phone (even Facebook app loses against WhatsApp – only 68% of Indians keep the Facebook app, the rest use it through the browser). As a result, most app developers lose 60-70% of their app users within 90 days of the user installing the app.

Across Asia, bundled apps have picked up traction in the last 1-2 years. This bundling is happening around multiple different main needs e.g. cabs, wallet, shopping, news, chat etc. While WeChat in China is the most famous example of it, there are countless others: Baidu, Meituan, Tao Taio, GoJek etc. Each of these apps has achieved massive scale and serves multiple needs for their users.

However, bundling is not as simple as it looks. This round of bundling will present interesting challenges. The first and foremost challenge is to meet customer expectations: for example, how do you get the user to order food on a news app? If an app has very high traction for one use case, teaching and training the user to leave the main use case and think of using the app for other things is extremely difficult. In fact, one Chinese product manager I spoke to categorised all conversions from the app’s main use case as “leakage”. If your main pipe is huge, then the “leakage” can be millions of dollars. Otherwise, it’s just hope.

From a marketing perspective, it is important to pick a noun that users can understand easily (if a flight app starts selling hotels or trains, we don’t even think of it as bundling since it is seen as a natural part of “travel”). When you aim for being a broad use-case app, you need a way to be able to explain the app in a relatable way.

User interface and user experience (UI/UX) is extremely difficult to get right for a standalone app, and even more difficult for a bundled app. And customers get used to better UI / UX very quickly. Remember how a Flipkart delivery in 2009 used to feel like magic. Today we take it for granted. Similarly, the challenge of a bundled app is to create different UI for different use cases with about 90-100% fidelity to the UI/UX of standalone apps. It sounds easier than it is.

There are many superb entrepreneurs and product managers trying to solve for these challenges. Some challenges will be solved, and some may defeat founders and force them to accept that the consumer is king. The problem is knowing which ones are which.

This article first appeared in Economic Times.


Building a bundled app for Indians – PPT at Techsparks

I presented at Techsparks held in Bangalore on 30 September 2016. The topic was “Building a bundled app for Indians”. There’s a long way for us to go in doing that ourselves but I thought it would be a good idea to share some learning from our early experiences. I feel building for the mass user and a bundled experience are both massive opportunities.

Here’s the ppt that I presented. It’s got very minimal text (and may not be very informative) as it was supposed to be accompanied by me talking. But for whatever it’s worth, here’s the link.

PDF format – Building for Indians – TS


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

This was first published as an editorial in Economic Times with a more sedate headline. A few days later it circulated and became a bit viral under the above headline.

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.

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.

Church Street in Bangalore. Image credit:

Church Street in Bangalore. Image credit:

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 Tapzo CEO, the change starts at home. Here are some things which we are now trying to instil at Tapzo 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.


Moving away from chat: Hard-earned lessons

Since we moved away from chat a few days ago, we’ve had a lot of users come and ask us why we decided to bring chat to a bare minimum in our app.

While several of our users loved the chat feature, for a lot of our users chat was a cumbersome way of doing things (too many taps, easier if they did it themselves etc.).

After extensive debate internally, we took the call to phase out chat from our app and create the same level of experience using automation and simple user interfaces. The rest of the app remains the same – but it is simplified, fast and without any delays.

Since a lot of people believe that chat is the new universal UI (like we once passionately believed), I thought it might be useful to talk about our experience and learning.


Back in early 2015, we thought that chat would become a universal UI because people were really using chat like crazy on their mobiles for P2P messaging. We thought we could build a personal assistant that helps them get things done over chat.

We built our chat process team over a period of 3 months from March to June 2015. By June 2015 – we were probably the biggest C2B (consumer to business) chat apps in the world. Probably bigger than all our Indian competitors and American counterparts like Operator and Magic combined. We were doing more than 70,000 chat sessions a day (not messages, chat sessions). The idea was that the manual chat would provide enough training data for building out a great bot.

Initially, we had a great response – customers hadn’t seen an experience like this before and loved the fact that there was a real human being on the other end helping them with their queries.

Learning on chat

The only problem with chat was that customers who tried it weren’t coming back. So we tried harder, optimised first response times, average response times, our knowledge base, canned responses and built better dashboards for monitoring all of these (all the while scaling the backend for the chat volume). That still didn’t work.

We thought that at some point users would get trained to use chat in the right way (like how people got trained to use Google). It now seems foolhardy to even think like that but we really thought that chat UI will truly work, if only we worked hard enough.

Next we thought – how about using a NLP-based chat bot and also experiment with reimagining chat (make it into a series of simple clicks with graphic UI elements).

The chat bot irritated the users no end (our data science team built a large set of training data, but coping with Hinglish, SMS lingo, vernacular language to write a general purpose chat bot becomes a 5 year science project very quickly). Breaking up across different channels didn’t make the task any easier.

Reimagining chat worked where the permutations and combinations were very limited. Example, we wrote a laundry bot where you didn’t have to type – just select options. It worked to some degree. Then we decided to implement it for ordering food but in user studies the users kept saying that it was very painful to use.

The hard truth (for us)

Finally somewhere in Sept 2015 it became obvious that the problem was chat (there were lots of learning along the way but this one was the biggest). The number of taps required to get anything done was just way too many, no matter what you do. People often confuse the debate with bots, AI etc. but does it really make sense to chat to get a cab when you can simply tap once and book (no matter what you think, our user data was very obvious on this. The answer is no.).

The customer would try it once out of curiosity but never come back. Other ways (simple UI) was just way faster and on the internet people will ALWAYS choose what is faster. Chat might be great for long tail use cases (that random philosophy book that you had always wanted but couldn’t find easily) but mobile businesses in India don’t get built on them.

This Dan Grover (WeChat product manager)  article nailed it and before that it was Connie Chan’s (A16Z partner) tweetstorm.

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This tweet is the TLDR of this blog post.


We had learned this the hard way more than 6 months earlier.

Learning and changing

So in September 2015, we took stock and decided to introspect. To use a Charlie Mungerism, we were behaving like a man with a hammer (chat) and everything looked like a nail to us.

We decided to think with first principles and asked ourselves – What does a personal assistant do? What is the easiest/fastest way to do things? What is required to create a personal assistant for millions of Indians? What should be the principles based on which the product team should build? Etc. etc.

New launch and traction

We finally launched the redesigned app in January 2016 and we haven’t looked back since. It was based on a simple insight – don’t force fit chat, just build for the user.

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We’ve been growing super fast with probably the best cross category transaction behavior of any app in India and it looks like we’ve gotten something right.

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Our main screen. Do all things from one app. But without chat.

More than 20 API integrations are already live (and for most of our partners, we are the biggest partners in terms of transactions or traffic). Another 15-20 APIs will be live in the next 3 months.

It also proved to us that chat or voice didn’t have anything to do with building a personal assistant (people also confuse chat/bots with AI etc. We believe AI/Machine Learning/advanced algos are relevant even more so outside of building a chat bot – you’ll at least have actual usage and be able to train the system). Just focus on what is the easiest way to do things for the user and the rest will figure itself out.

The need for speed

We are on our way to creating the world’s fastest product and tech team. We launched recharge, bill payments, cabs, deals, news, journey cards – all in 5 months. In the next 3 months, we’ll be launching many more things. Some will wow our users, some will be duds. But that’s the only way to create an awesome personal assistance platform. Fail, learn, ship, fail, learn, ship…

Personal note

This tweet kind of sums it up.

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While it is supposed to be tough, the toughest of all was the decision regarding our chat operations team. We have taken the decision to let go of most of our chat colleagues. We looked at the retention cohorts or uninstall cohorts for all our chat users but they were always much worse than others (for reasons explained above). No matter which way we looked at it, it made sense for us to take this decision.

3 month severance package and outplacement

We’ve given a 3-months’ severance package to everyone who was let go (i.e. our chat colleagues) and we will do our best to help them find new jobs. I’m working with our HR team on this and we have already roped in 12 startups and big companies for out-placing them into the right job profiles (chat ops, voice ops etc.).

I feel proud of the fact that I am working with such smart people in our team who are insanely passionate about our mission. Building a AI-powered personal assistance platform is exciting beyond words.

Founder and CEO