Indigenous micro-blogging site Koo, the Indian alternative to Twitter, has traversed a long way ever since it was launched in March 2020. In an interview with TOI, Koo CEO and co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna shares the platform’s unique journey in the last one-and-a-half years, the challenges, experiences and the future plans.
What was the idea behind starting the Koo app?
The idea occurred to us while building our first product, Vokal. Vokal is a Q&A platform for experts to answer questions asked by language speakers. Vokal is used by lakhs of experts and respondents. A few of them expressed their interest to share their free-flowing thoughts in addition to answering questions. We recognised an enormous gap in digital content creation in native languages in India. The online space largely focused on English-speaking, urban Indians. In a country like India, where more than 90 per cent of the population thinks and speaks in regional languages, the power of expression in your own language is immense. We studied the existing products only to realise that Indian language content on existing products is sparse and an immersive language experience was required to get them to create the way English users do. We began developing the Koo platform in December 2019 and launched it in March 2020. We started with Kannada from Mandya, a district in Karnataka near Mysuru. The promising feedback from the few months of running in Kannada boosted our confidence and eventually led us to launch the app in Hindi in the next few months. In July 2020, we participated in the Aatmanirbhar App Challenge and showcased a deeply immersive experience for Indians in their mother tongue. We were among the top three apps in social media out of the 7,000 startups that participated in the challenge. The Honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi also mentioned Koo in the August 2020 edition of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ speech.
How do you see the growth of Koo ever since it was launched in March 2020?
Koo has earned a lot of love from India. It caters to a very unique Indian problem of enabling expression for over a billion Indians in their mother tongue. For most global players, catering to Indians and India’s language diversity is an after-thought. Whereas for us, we have kept this as the dominant inspiration while building Koo. We started Koo because 90 per cent of the country speaks and interacts in a language other than English. They feel lost in English-dominant communities. We wanted to give their voices a stage and include them and their voices on the internet. Since we launched 18 months back, we have had a great response. We started in Kannada, are now available in eight Indian languages and will expand to many more. We have gone from a few thousand users to over 1 crore users in a very short period. We are also well capitalised to fuel our future growth. In May 2021, Koo raised $30 million in our Series B funding round led by Tiger Global, with existing investors Accel Partners, Kalaari Capital, 3one4 Capital, Blume Ventures and Dream Incubator also participating. We have thousands of eminent personalities such as celebrities, editors, journalists, sports stars, union ministers, chief ministers, local and national politicians among many other sections of society that Koo everyday to connect with their followers.
Are you satisfied with the progress it has made in the last 18 months?
Koo grew 18 months old in October 2021. It has been an exciting journey for us. We crossed over 1 crore downloads in just 16 months. We have barely scratched the surface compared to our potential. Today, Koo is available in eight languages, including English. We will have over 25 languages on Koo. We will continue to focus on driving the growth of content across multiple Indian languages and building our product with unique features that will further democratise the voices of India. India has a lot of potential. The internet penetration is expected to rise to a billion internet users. Koo is one of the most unique products that caters to every section of society. It is also one of the most powerful platforms out there with some of the most prominent faces of the country using the platform every day. While we knew the potential of giving people a voice, we did not expect so much love, appreciation and growth in such a short span.
What are the challenges which you are facing?
Most of our initial challenges were related to common startups such as attracting great talent and building a team that is passionate about building large-scale social products out of India and for the world. India has largely seen transaction startups. Talent that has built social products is sparse. We want to build globally competitive products. A lot of the technology that we are building has been built by very few in the world, especially in Indian languages. There are many interesting challenges one faces while building a deeply immersive language-based platform. Most products do not have to be built in multiple languages. Whereas for us, that was our starting point. While we will be one of the first few to deal and solve these, we are in the early days of building good deep tech around this.
Even though Koo is seen as the Indian version of Twitter, the world’s largest and most popular micro-blogging site, why have the majority of Indians not switched over to it yet?
Majority of India does not speak English. Global micro-blogging platforms cater to the English-speaking Indians largely. They are under-penetrated in Indian languages. We have a good start and have created deeper and more immersive language experiences on Koo and have become the largest Hindi micro-blogging platform. In fact, we are larger (than other platforms) in most languages we operate in. However, we are nowhere close to the potential that India represents. Nobody has created a brand that can enable India to openly express themselves comfortably in their mother tongue. We will be one of few brands that enables and delivers on that promise. That is when we will see a large part of the country adopting Koo. Some of the largest startups that India celebrates are Indian versions of a global giant. It is important to cater to huge Indian problems by Indianising existing solutions, hence becoming more relevant to this population. This need has been ignored and someone needs to solve it. India has almost 500-600 million internet users and that number is predicted to rise to 900 million in the next few years. This only shows the kind of potential that exists for Koo, as the platform is an innovation in the world of language-based micro-blogging. Never before has there been a platform that enabled so many Indians to share thoughts in a language of their choice. There are people on Koo who have got more followers in five days than they did in their entire time on other platforms. When that happens, you have basically created a network that is driving a lot of value to people.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) joined Koo in September. However, several political parties, including the biggest two – BJP and Congress – have not joined it yet. The top-most leaders from the ruling party such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda have not opened their account on Koo as yet. Similarly, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, his sister and All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and other senior leaders too have not joined Koo so far. Of the 77 Union ministers, only 18 have joined the Indian social media platform. Why is it so?
Koo is a very young platform and has many prominent personalities from across different sections of society. In a very short span it has managed to attract many users and celebrities. It takes many years to achieve such traction. Many global world leaders joined global social media platforms many years after they started so it is uncommon. You can study this by visiting their profiles and studying when they joined compared to when these global platforms started. Today, we have leaders of great stature on Koo. They are using the platform to connect with people in their mother tongue, making it possible for people to consume and respond to content on a micro-blogging platform in their own language. It is a matter of pride that Koo is becoming the social media platform of choice for leaders and public figures. Those who are on the platform enjoy a lot of love from a large part of India. Many people’s followership on Koo has crossed their following elsewhere in a matter of months. Many more prominent personalities are expected to join in the coming few months.
Why is Koo seen as a BJP or a right-wing platform?
Koo was started to enable all Indians to express themselves in their mother tongue. We are a platform that believes in democratisation of voice and transparency in action. Today a good part of India has been left out of expressing their voice because of language barriers. We want to enable that large percentage of India to speak their mind in a language of their comfort. Anyone who understands how important this mission is for India will support Koo. Koo is made in India, for India and is the best solution for any country that does not have English as their dominant language. Till now we have only used products from other countries as far as social media is concerned. We should be very proud to be on a journey of creating products from India and for the world. Some Indians do not celebrate this. We should avoid colouring such attempts with a political lens and encourage more of such solutions that can make India shine on a global stage. This product was started with the noble vision of empowering people and binding the country on the basis of its languages and strengthening connections between communities.
Why have a lesser number of opposition leaders and parties than their counterparts in the BJP-led NDA joined Koo?
That is untrue. We have people from multiple political parties and political parties themselves on Koo. We have representation of parties like the BJP, INC, AAP, LJP, JJP, BSP, SP, JDU, JDS, AIMIM, NCP, RJD, JMM, RLD, Apna Dal, Shiv Sena, YSRCP, People’s Party and Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party. We have senior opposition party leaders such as YS Jaganmohan Reddy, Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath, Nakul Kamal Nath on Koo. The perception of Koo being under-represented is unfounded and baseless.
As compared with Twitter, Koo is said to be more prompt and generous in allotting verified ticks. Any particular reason behind this?
Koo indicates that a profile is verified through a ‘yellow tick’ against a user’s name, which we call ‘Eminence’. A yellow tick on Koo recognises and celebrates a user’s eminence, stature, achievements, abilities and professional standing in Indian life. We understand the nuances of the Indian context to decide eminence and how there is national and local eminence. It is very important to recognise and celebrate this in the online world just the way eminence is celebrated in the offline world. One rule does not fit all. It is important to localise the existing practices. We are more relevant because of this approach. You will see that we have one of the most comprehensive criteria of recognising someone’s eminence in society than most other social platforms in the world. You can read more about our criteria here: https://www.kooapp.com/eminence.
What are your plans ahead?
To enable India to express itself freely. To enable multiple Indian languages on Koo. To give the power to users to follow their favourite people, communities and organisations on Koo. To give Indians the best in class features to enable expression and discovery of people and communities. India has huge potential. Hindi is one of the top five languages spoken in the world. Over a billion people in India do not speak English. We have barely scratched the surface. Our solution is not just relevant to India but to a large part of the world. Less than 20 percent of the world speaks English. The rest of the world speaks a local language that needs those communities to be connected deeply. Koo will enable that. Koo will be one of the few digital products made from India and for the world.