Facebook addresses political controversy in India, monetization opportunities, startup investments

At the beginning of the previous decade, Facebook had a tiny presence in India. It had just started to slowly expand its team in the country and was inking deals with telecom operators to make access to its service free to users and even offer incentives such as free voice credit.

India’s internet population, now the second largest with more than 500 million connected users, itself was very small. In early 2011, the country had fewer than 100 million internet users.

But Facebook ended up playing a crucial role in the last decade. So much so that by the end of it, the social juggernaut was reaching nearly every internet user in the country. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 400 million internet users in India, more than any other app in the country, according to mobile insight firm App Annie.

This reach of Facebook in India didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians in the country today heavily rely on Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to get their message out. But it has also complicated things.

Rumors have spread on WhatsApp that cost lives, and politicians from both the large political parties in India in recent weeks have accused the company of showing favoritism to the other side.

To address these issues, and the role Facebook wishes to play in India, Ajit Mohan, the head of the company’s business in the country, joined us at Disrupt 2020. Following are some of the highlights.

On controversy

A recent report in WSJ claimed that Ankhi Das, one of Facebook’s top executives in India, decided against taking down a post from a politician from the ruling party. She did so, the report claimed, because she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in India.

In Mohan’s first interview since the controversy broke, he refuted the claims that any executive in the country holds power to influence how Facebook enforces its content policy.

“We believe that it’s important for us to be open and neutral and non-partisan,” he said. “We have deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral party that allows speech of all kinds, that allows expression of all kinds, including political expression, and a lot of the guidelines that we have developed are to make sure that we really enable our diversity of expression and opinion so long as we’re able to make sure that the safety and security of people are protected.”

Mohan said the internal processes and systems inside Facebook are designed to ensure that any opinion and preference of an employee or a group of employees is “quite separate from the company and the company’s objective enforcement of its own policies.”

He said individuals can offer input on decisions, but nobody — including Ankhi Das — can unilaterally influence the decision Facebook takes on content enforcement.

“We do allow free expression inside the company as well. We don’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view, but we see that separate from the enforcement of our content policy. […] The content policy itself, in the context of India, is a team that stands separate from the public policy team that is led by Ankhi,” he added.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

On India and monetization

Even as Facebook has amassed hundreds of millions of users in India, the world’s second largest market contributes little to its bottom line. So why does Facebook care so much about the country?

“India is in the middle of a very exciting economic and social transformation where digital has a massive role to play. In just the last four years, more than 500 million users have come online. The pace of this transformation probably has no parallel in either human history or even in the digital transformation happening in countries around the world,” he said.

“For a company like ours, if you look at the family of apps across WhatsApp and Instagram, we believe we have a useful role to play in fueling this transformation,” he said.

Even as Facebook does not generate a lot of revenue from India, Mohan said the company has established itself as one of the most trusted platforms for marketers. “They look to us as a material partner in their marketing agenda,” he said.

He said the company is hopeful that advertising as a GDP will go up in India. “Therefore ad-revenue will become substantial over time,” he said.

For Facebook, India is also crucial because it allows the company to build some unique products that solve issues for India but could be replicated in other markets. The company is currently testing an integration of WhatsApp, which currently does not have a business model despite having over 2 billion users, with new Indian e-commerce JioMart, to allow users to easily track their orders.

“We think there is opportunity to build India-first models, experiment at scale, and in a world where we succeed, we see huge opportunity in taking some of these models global,” he said.

Facebook as a VC

Facebook does not usually invest in startups. But in India, the company has invested in social-commerce firm Meesho, online learning platform Unacademy — it even participated in its follow-up round — and it wrote a $5.7 billion check to Jio Platforms earlier this year. So why is Facebook taking this investment route in India?

“We wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early-stage startups to figure out how we could be helpful to startup founders and the ecosystem as a whole. The starting point was backing teams that were building models that in some ways were unique to India and could go global. Since we made an investment in Meesho, they have made a strong thrust in Indonesia. These are the kind of companies where we feel we can add value as well as we can learn from these startups,” he said.

The partnership with Jio Platforms follows a different rationale. “The transformation we talked about in India in the last few years, Jio triggered it,” he said. Other than that, Facebook is exploring ways to work with Jio, such as with its partnership with Jio’s venture JioMart. “It can really fuel the small and medium business that is good for the Indian economy,” he said.

Mohan said the company continues to explore more opportunities in Indian startups, especially with those where the teams think Facebook can add value, but he said there is no mandate of any kind that Facebook has to invest in, say dozens of startups in three to four years. “It’s not a volume play,” he said.

But would these firms, including Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, will receive any special access on Facebook’s services. What if Amazon, BigBasket, Grofers, or Flipkart want to integrate with WhatsApp, too? Mohan said Facebook platform is open for every firm and everyone will receive the same level of access and opportunities.

In the interview, Mohan, who ran the Disney-run Hotstar on-demand streaming service in India, also talked about the growing usage of video in India, the state of WhatsApp Pay’s rollout in the country, what Facebook thinks of India’s ban on Chinese apps, and much more. You can watch the full interview below.

#ajit-mohan, #apps, #asia, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #facebook, #facebook-india, #hotstar, #meesho, #social, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #whatsapp, #whatsapp-pay

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Indian startups diversify their businesses to offset COVID-19 induced losses

E-commerce giant Flipkart is planning to launch a hyperlocal service that would enable customers to buy items from local stores and have those delivered to them in an hour and a half or less. Yatra, an online travel and hotel ticketing service, is exploring a new business line altogether: Supplying office accessories.

Flipkart and Yatra are not the only firms eyeing new business categories. Dozens of firms in the country have branched out by launching new services in recent weeks, in part to offset the disruption the COVID-19 epidemic has caused to their core offerings.

Swiggy and Zomato, the nation’s largest food delivery startups, began delivering alcohol in select parts of the country last month. The move came weeks after the two firms, both of which are seeing fewer orders and had to let go hundreds of employees, started accepting orders for grocery items in a move that challenged existing online market leaders BigBasket and Grofers.

Udaan, a business-to-business marketplace, recently started to accept bulk orders from some housing societies and is exploring more opportunities in the business-to-commerce space, the startup told TechCrunch.

These shifts came shortly after New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown meant that all public places including movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, and public transport were suspended.

Instead of temporarily halting their businesses altogether, as many have done in other markets, scores of startups in India have explored ways to make the most out of the current unfortunate spell.

“This pandemic has given an opportunity to the Indian tech startup ecosystem to have a harder look at the unit-economics of their businesses and become more capital efficient in the shorter and longer-term,” Puneet Kumar, a growth investor in Indian startup ecosystem, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Of the few things most Indian state governments have agreed should remain open include grocery shops, and online delivery services for grocery and food.

People buy groceries at a supermarket during the first day of the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bangalore on March 25, 2020. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

E-commerce firms Snapdeal and DealShare began grocery delivery service in late March. The move was soon followed by social-commerce startup Meesho, fitness startup Curefit, and BharatPe, which is best known for facilitating mobile payments between merchants and users.

Meesho’s attempt is still in the pilot stage, said Vidit Aatrey, the Facebook-backed startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We started grocery during the lockdown to give some income opportunities to our sellers and so far it has shown good response. So we are continuing the pilot even after lockdown has lifted,” he said.

ClubFactory, best known for selling low-cost beauty items, has also started to deliver grocery products, and so has NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that connects apartment seekers with property owners. And MakeMyTrip, a giant that provides solutions to book flight and hotel tickets, has entered the food delivery market.

Another such giant, BookMyShow, which sells movie tickets, has in recent weeks rushed to support online events, helping comedians and other artists sell tickets online. The Mumbai-headquartered firm plans to make further inroads around this business idea in the coming days.

For some startups, the pandemic has resulted in accelerating the launch of their product cycles. CRED, a Bangalore-based startup that is attempting to help Indians improve their financial behavior by paying their credit card bill on time, launched an instant credit line and apartment rental services.

Kunal Shah, the founder and chief executive of CRED, said the startup “fast-tracked the launch” of these two products as they could prove immensely useful in the current environment.

For a handful of startups, the pandemic has meant accelerated growth. Unacademy, a Facebook-backed online learning startup, has seen its user base and subscribers count surge in recent months and told TechCrunch that it is in the process of more than doubling the number of exam preparation courses it offers on its platform in the next two months.

Since March, the number of users who access the online learning service each day has surged to 700,000. “We have also seen a 200% increase in viewers per week for the free live classes offered on the platform. Additionally there has been a 50% increase in paid subscribers and over 50% increase in average watchtime per day among our subscribers,” a spokesperson said.

As with online learning firms, firms operating on-demand video streaming services have also seen a significant rise in the number of users they serve. Zee5, which has amassed over 80 million users, told TechCrunch last week that in a month it will introduce a new category in its app that would curate short-form videos produced and submitted by users. The firm said the feature would look very similar to TikTok.

The pandemic “has also accelerated the adoption of online services in India across all demographics. Many who would not have considered buying goods and services online are starting to adopt the online platforms for basic necessities at a faster pace,” said venture capitalist Kumar.

“As far as expansion into adjacent categories is concerned, some of this was a natural progression and startups were slowly moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic has forced people to get there faster.”

Roosh, a Mumbai-based game developing firm founded by several industry veterans, launched a new app ahead of schedule that allows social influencers to promote games on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Deepak Ail, co-founder and chief executive of Roosh, told TechCrunch.

ShareChat, a Twitter-backed social network, recently acquired a startup called Elanic to explore opportunities in social-commerce. OkCredit, a bookkeeping service for merchants, has been exploring ways to allow users to purchase items from neighborhood stores.

And NowFloats, a Mumbai-based SaaS startup that helps businesses and individuals build an online presence without any web developing skills, is on-boarding doctors to help people consult with medical professionals.

Startups are not the only businesses that have scrambled to eye new categories. Established firms such as Carnival Group, which is India’s third-largest multiplex theatre chain, said it is foraying into cloud kitchen business.

Amazon, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, has also secured approval from West Bengal to deliver alcohol in the nation’s fourth most populated state. The e-commerce giant is also exploring ways to work with mom and pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns of India.

Last week, the American giant launched “Smart Stores” that allows shoppers to walk to a participating physical store, scan a QR code, and pick and purchase items through the Amazon app. The firm, which is supplying these mom and pop stores with software and QR code, said more than 10,000 shops are participating in the Smart Stores program.

#apps, #asia, #bookmyshow, #coronavirus, #covid, #covid19, #cred, #ecommerce, #education, #entertainment, #flipkart, #india, #logistics, #meesho, #nowfloats, #okcredit, #swiggy, #udaan, #zomato

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India’s logistics aggregator Shiprocket raises $13M to expand overseas

Shiprocket, a New Delhi-based logistics aggregator that works with direct-to-consumer sellers including several social media influencers, has raised $13 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its platform overseas.

Silicon Valley-based investment firm Tribe Capital led Shiprocket’s Series C financing round. Innoven Capital and existing investor Bertelsmann India Investments also participated in the round, which brings the three year-old startup’s to-date funding to $26 million.

Shiprocket works with more than a dozen courier companies in India and negotiates terms such as the fee and shipment tracking with them on behalf of its sellers, Saahil Goel, co-founder and chief executive of the startup, told TechCrunch in an interview last year.

The startup today works with more than 35,000 sellers in India and processes about 2 million shipments each month. It also helps sellers with tackling items that get lost during the shipment and enabling cash on delivery, the most popular payment option among customers in India. Gillettte, beauty product chain Mamaearth, beer franchise The Beer Cafe, coaching institute Aakaash Institute, and craft beer maker Bira are among some brands that use Shiprocket’s service.

Shiprocket has also become one of the top selling partners for social media influencers in India who have to take care of the items they sell to their fans themselves. In recent years, a wave of social commerce startups such as Meesho, backed by Prosus Ventures and Facebook, and Simsim have emerged in India as they attempt to reshape how people think about buying online.

“One of the reasons why the United States and emerging economies have thrived over the last 50 years has been a healthy dynamic of small to medium entrepreneurial businesses alongside consolidation and scaling corporations,” said Arjun Sethi, co-founder of Tribe Capital, in a statement.

“We invested in Shiprocket because they empower the small to medium businesses that truly represent the heart and soul of any emerging economy. Today, the SME segment lacks capital finance and credit, infrastructure, technology, and marketing strategies. Shiprocket has enabled these businesses to grow at a time of emerging competition enabled by mobile internet and corporations,” he added.

Shiprocket says it will use the fresh capital to expand its data science and engineering teams and focus on new initiatives including its international expansions. The startup already ships shipment overseas, it claims it delivers in more than 26,000 zip codes in India and 220 additional countries and markets.

The startup said it was profitable in the financial year that ended on March 31, 2019 and has an annualized revenue run rate between $25 million to $30 million. It did not comment on the impact coronavirus pandemic has had on its business.

#arjun-sethi, #asia, #facebook, #funding, #innoven-capital, #logistics, #meesho, #prosus-ventures, #simsim, #tribe-capital

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Google employee in Bangalore tests positive for coronavirus

Google said on Thursday that an employee at its office in Bangalore, India has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus and the firm has asked all the other employees in that office to work from home on Friday out of abundance of caution.

“We can confirm that an employee from our Bangalore office has been diagnosed with COVID-19. They were in one of our Bangalore offices for a few hours before developing any symptoms,” a company spokesperson said in a statement, adding that those who were in close contact with the employee have been asked to quarantine themselves.

In an internal email, accessed by TechCrunch, Anand Rangarajan, director of engineering at Google, said the infected “Googler contracted the virus after traveling overseas.”

In recent days, Google has moved to ask all its employees in North America, Europe, and several other regions to work from home. But the company has yet to extend such measure to its employees and contractor workers in Asian markets.

Several startups in India have taken a more proactive approach. Bangalore-based Zerodha, which is the largest stock broker, made it mandatory for all its employees on Thursday to work from home.

Bangalore-based Instamojo, which helps small merchants, education startup Unacademy, mobility firm Bounce, recruiting startup Springworks, and social commerce startup Meesho have all enforced a similar policy.

To date, 74 cases of COVID-19 have been detected in India, up from some 40 late last week. To raise awareness about the infectious disease, telecom operators in the country have started to warn users ahead of each call. On Wednesday, India suspended a vast majority of visas to the country to contain the virus.

The Indian stock markets plunged into bear territory on Thursday, heightening worries for the immediate future prospects of the nation’s already slowing economy. The Nifty plunged 8.3% to 9,590.15, its lowest close in two-and-a-half years, while the Sensex slid about 8% to a near two-year low of 32,778.14.

The last time Indian stock indexes dropped as much was at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008.

#asia, #coronavirus, #google, #health, #meesho, #unacademy

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