Technology entrepreneurship has evolved steadily in India. From being a back office to clients across the world, to modelling around products made in the west to now an opportunity where one needs to build ground up to make the non English population make full use of the internet. With smart phones getting cheaper and internet becoming an essential commodity, there’s never been so much demand for internet products that cater to the broader markets of India outside the English speaking metros. In the last 10 years, internet companies in India have solved urban problems, mainly owing to the fact that urban India adopted to the internet first. Cab sharing, food delivery, home services are all examples of urban Indian problems whose users are Indians with the knowledge of English. They form less than 10% of India’s population.
90% of India does not speak English. India has 22 official languages with 6000+ dialects and 55+ languages with 1 million+ speakers. We are one of the few countries with more than 1 language. Most large countries like US, UK, Australia and China have 1 or 2 languages spoken across the country. With the internet & smartphone revolution in India and rising aspirations among masses, there is a need among the next 500 million internet users to make progress and harness the power of the Internet.
India’s internet is on the verge of becoming one of the largest segments in the world. 400 million new consumers will be using the internet for the first time of which none of them will be English speaking. This will make the language internet user base almost 600-700 million users — twice the size of the United States population.
When the English speaking user in India first used the internet 20 years ago, they mostly used it for communication, entertainment, news, information and knowledge search as one of their initial needs. Over a period of time, various brands have emerged as leaders for each one of these use cases. WhatsApp is for communication, YouTube is for entertainment, news apps/sites for news, Twitter is for expression and Google is for information. The west-influenced English speaking audience of India uses these products and networks very easily. They are aspirationally western by nature. They are the audience which wants to learn English and study in the West. That aspiration for diminishes beyond the first 100 million population of India.
All this changes as soon as we go beyond the first 100 million users of India. Whatsapp is not used for communication. It is mostly used for sharing photos and links. There is no place on the internet where the user can express themselves. There is very little information and knowledge on the Internet in Indian languages. The Internet was created by and for the English speaking world. When you look for information in Hindi or any other Indian language on search engines, you’ll find very few sites with accurate information. Search engines have been built on top of millions of websites to make discovery easier but India never had an eco system to create content in local languages. There is a lack of websites and hence lack of information in Indian languages.
The opportunity definitely sounds exciting but the path to build companies for the next billion users is not the easiest. The founders of the last decade have mainly solved problems that they personally have faced. Tapping the next billion audiences would require to build through a thorough understanding of a user who behaves very differently from the urban English speaking audience of India.
This makes it important to have an ability to experiment rapidly and to be comfortable to discard 80% of the experiments. Despite this, there’s the danger of getting replicated easily. After investing a few years in experiments, there is a high chance that you may get replicated overnight. This happens if the company hasn’t created a barrier to entry. It’s not the easiest thing to do but those who do manage to create a strong barrier to entry will rule the vernacular internet for the foreseeable future.
Attracting users is one part of the challenge. The other is the question of how a vernacular content platform makes money. Advertising might not yield anywhere close to what the English audience platforms yield. The largest platforms are struggling with advertising revenue from India. Unless there is a strong unique value proposition for the user, making money from them would be very difficult. A deep understanding of what the next billion pays for will help innovate for monetization.
Hoping to find a solution and to help people from various communities and language understand each other, Aprameya Radhakrishna went out to start a new venture — Vokal. Almost a year old, the startup is catering to help the non-English speaking community find answers they seek on the internet, which is mostly written in Engligh. Vokal aims to change the way people communicate, make vernacular languages accessible for all; and in the bargain, help businesses take advantage of this platform to increase revenue while catering to the non-English speaking segment. Grilling Aprameya, who is the Co-Founder and CEO for Vokal, we find out why Vokal, and how it can help break the knowledge disparity between the English and non English speaking population.
Q: Do you think to understand knowledge-sharing peculiarities in multi-lingual context we should view language from a social perspective?
AR: The social context of people living in the cities and tier 2 locations are very different. The thoughts that they need clarity on and the questions that they need answers to are also very different. the knowledge of English is still very low in these smaller cities and towns. The demand for human resources for various jobs is also attracting people from smaller towns to the larger cities increasingly everyday. This is adding to the local language knowledge disparity that is there. This is the fundamental reason why a platfrom for sharing languages in the social context of the language speakers is extremely important.
Q: Do you think to address this issue, it is important to explore the development of language clusters which have direct bearing on Knowledge-sharing practices?
AR: Each language community needs to be developed separately. The questions asked are customized to the community and hence it is important to approach knowledge sharing through language clusters.
Q: Knowledge has emerged as the principal organizational resource in today’s knowledge society. How Knowledge sharing and management apps are transforming the ability to take the advantage of information
AR: In the vernacular context, with the increased penetration of smart phones and affordable internet, the power to seek knowledge is something that users are figuring out. Their need to quench this thirst for knowledge is significantly high as the alternatives to this does not easily exist. The ability to ask any question and get an answer from another person in their own language is a 'Wow' experience for users who don't know English and living in small towns.
Q: How language apps are playing major role especially in smaller cities in achieving PM Modi dream of “connecting Bharat”
AR: The amount of Indian language content is very low on the internet. Without that, the utility of the internet is also very low. Language apps are initiating the usage of internet amongst the wider audience of India by breaking barriers of needing to know English. As more individuals get onto the internet independently, it will add up to create a massive network where Bharat will eventually get connected.
Q: How Vokal is playing a vital role in the in this language and knowledge sharing industry in India
AR: Vokal is the only company which is creating a platform for knowledge in India. It enables any user who is uncomfortable with English to be able to ask and get answers to questions in their own language. Vokal is in 10 different Indian languages. This helps break the knowledge disparity that exists between the English and non English population and hence bridging the economic disparity that exists.
Q: The vision for Vokal 2020?
AR: To enable every Indian to get answers to any question in their own language.
The race to acquire the next billion Indians has started. The next wave of internet companies will solve unique Indian problems which arrive from a deep understanding of the daily lives of non English speaking Indians. Finding these daily habits will require patience to experiment over a long period of time. The companies which exhibit this patience will reap rewards in the long term. They are the ones that will succeed. For everyone who watched the ecommerce, cab, payment battles over the last decade – grab some popcorn, here comes the next battlefield.