As someone well versed in at least four languages, Mayank Bidawatka is somewhat advantageously placed as co-founder of Koo, the homegrown microblogging platform that he’s building to rival Twitter.
Bidawatka founded Koo in March last year with Taxiforsure co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna as an alternative to Twitter with native Indian language capabilities. It currently offers users the ability to express their opinions and views in five Indian languages including Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi and Telugu, apart from Hindi and English.
In the 12-odd months since its launch, it claims to have already racked up more than 5 million download across Android and iOS.
Koo isn’t Mumbai-born Bidawatka’s first entrepreneurial venture. He was part of the founding team and marketing head of online bus ticketing platform redBus. After redBus was acquired by ibibo in 2013, Bidawatka founded Media Ant, a media discovery and buying platform . He met Koo co-founder Radhakrishna during his time at redBus and took on a consulting role at ride hailing platform Taxiforsure in 2014.
After running businesses driving tangible value for small and medium business owners, Bidawatka found the challenge of selling ‘recognition’ to individual users a unique proposition.
“You need to understand core human incentives to run a product like that,” he said. “What Koo is trying to sell is recognition to the people joining the platform... Using machine learning, we (Koo) know you are a journalist, and we will show you in the journalist carousel. We know that,” said Bidawatka.
Bidawatka and Radhakrishna, however, didn’t start their latest entrepreneurial journey with Koo. Rather, it began with an idea to set up an Indian language search platform which would include voice search. Bombinate Technologies, the Bengaluru-based company they had started, launched Vokal in 2018 -- a platform similar to Quora where users could ask questions through audio clips or in text format, which were in turn answered by domain.
“At Vokal, a lot of domain experts started saying that while they were answering questions, they also had free flowing thoughts they wanted to share. Microblogging is the easiest format you can do this in,” said Bidawatka, adding that this led them to study the Twitter opportunity.
While Twitter has enough English language users, it did not penetrate the Indian languages well. “There is no keyboard for the language and people felt lost if they tweeted in their mother tongue,” he said.
With Koo, users are first asked to select a language and the ‘people’ tab surfaces contributors in that language, using categorisation or topics on which the individuals comment.
This makes the process of discovering a community of users conversing in a common language easier, said Bidawatka. He added that not everyone on a social media platform is famous but, “deserves the right to become famous... that happens on Koo.”
In the months since its launch, Koo has managed to onboard politicians, including state and central government minister, officers from public administrative services and several media personalities. The central government is also reportedly considering releasing statements and announcements on Koo an hour before posting them on Twitter.
Today the BJP demands that a proper inquiry should be done, as the sustained campaign fabricated by the vested political interest purely for vote bank politics had distorted the morale of the Delhi police in their fight against terrorism.— Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad) March 9, 2021
Watch on Koo: https://t.co/J31oR9hM7Z pic.twitter.com/jgLATawn1P
Venture capital investors have bought into the native languages powered microblogging platform’s proposition. Koo recently raised $4.1 million in a Series A funding round led by 3one4 Capital. The company also said that Chinese venture capital firm Shunwei Capital, which had invested Bombinate Technologies in 2018 while building Vokal, had exited through the round.
The skills needed to run a social media platform where the individual or user is not looking at monetary gains or increase in business needs a different set of skills. Hence there have been hardly any of the old hands from redBus or Goodbox who have joined Bidwatka as part of the venture.
“We took time to understand that a product like social media can’t have a hard push on marketing. Also, there is a soft value proposition and you have to find people who understand how users view content,” he said, adding that Koo required them to find a team with these skills.
The product, he said, is different from Twitter in that it allows users to get verified, followed by a strong recommendation engine which makes the process of discovery of news and people related to areas of interest easy. “We are investing heavily in technology. Our AI and ML engine helps in discovering new content, we are moving towards personalization at a very rapid pace,” he said.
The app has set a target of crossing 100 million downloads by the end of the year.
“We want the best of India to talk to the rest of India,” said Bidawatka.