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God of small things

Rohit Jain, Co-founder and Partner, Pravega Ventures

At Pravega Ventures, we constantly think about the recipe for success for mobile apps. And, we believe, the answer is that daily use cases matter. Outside of transactional apps, if an app does not enjoy usage multiple times in a day, it is very unlikely to stay on the phone for long. User attention is fickle and they quickly move on to the next cool app doing the rounds. But even a seemingly small use case, exercised daily, creates the stickiness.

The first apps that come to mind when we think of daily use are the ones that are built around messaging and social networks: WhatsApp, FB, WeChat, Twitter. However, far from the view of most high-end smartphone users is another set of massively popular apps. Built mostly by Chinese companies, these apps have built a large user base by solving the problems faced by lower-end smartphone users around security and optimization (battery life, RAM, and junk file cleanup). These are companies like:

  • Cheetah Mobile, maker of CleanMaster family of apps ($1.4B Mkt Cap)
  • Apus, maker of popular launcher app, reach of 900M+ users.
  • 360Security, maker of popular 360Security anti-virus app, 300M+ MAU
  • UCWeb, make of popular browser and appstores like 9apps and 9games. Reportedly valued at $3.8B when acquired by Alibaba.
  • ShareIt(100M+ downloads) and Xender(50M+ downloads) file sharing apps. 

All of them had a simple formula: focus on a daily utility use case, get mass distribution, then monetize the traffic thru app installs and affiliate/content marketing. They all rode the wave of mass smartphone adoption in China and now continuing in countries like India, Indonesia etc. To be clear, it is not my case that these apps are in the same league as FB or WeChat. The defensibility and sustainable advantage for these companies is far less compared to the latter: there is zero or little network effect and benefits of the utility apps could be transient made redundant by the advances in underlying Android OS, like most optimization features of CleanMaster. Still most of these companies have managed to retain user base beyond the initial use case by transforming into ‘SuperApps’ offering a layer of functionality that appeals to a new low-end smartphone user. Even if the effects are arguably more of a placebo, it could be comforting when you are on a Rs 5000 phone that has specs that were deemed high-end in 2012, struggling with bloated apps.

So what can founders learn from the success of these apps ? For me, there are some clear takeaways:

  • Light weight apps: Keep your APK small preferably below 5MB. While this was driven in large part due to data costs that are now coming down, small apps means less hurdle for users. One trick that Chinese apps, and even FB, has used is to launch a ‘Lite’ version of the app. This gets users to at least try your app before they graduate to the full version.
  • Minimalist is not the way: Try UCWeb browser and you will understand what I mean. Unlike the minimalist design philosophy that works for evolved users, first time users are looking for content that can get them started. 
  • Language defaults: Don’t make english the default language, users find it hard to navigate to settings and change. Starting screen should give clear choice to users for the preferred language.
  • Sweat the small stuff: This sounds very cliched, but small things can lead to big improvement for users. As an example when Bobble keyboard [Keyboard, I believe, is another big daily use case opportunity ] pulled out the most commonly used emojis and put them on the home bar in their keyboard, 60% of their user base started using it from there. Sounds obvious but no other keyboard does that today. [Disclaimer: I was on the board of Bobble and this post has origins in the numerous discussions on this topic with Bobble founders.]
  • Distribution: As I mentioned earlier, the 3rd party apps stores like 9apps from UCWeb have good distribution reach in this segment. Don’t restrict yourself to just Google PlayStore. Distribution is equally, if not more, important than product for these apps. 

So where are the opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs ? I don’t have any ready answers but here’s one way to find them — start by switching over from a top-of-the line Samsung/iPhone to a Rs 5-7K range Xolo, Intex, Gionee. Unless you live and breathe the same environment, its hard to imagine these opportunities. If it sounds too easy, let me throw in a word of caution though: don’t bet against Moore’s law. Hardware will become cheaper, data will become more abundant. You have to factor that and evolve accordingly.

I haven’t touched on another huge opportunity, the regional content market. But that’s a post for another day. I want to end this post by mentioning a home-grown story that can inspire us all: Paytm. It focused on the frequent prepaid mobile recharge use case and built a giant on top of that.

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