Bengaluru: Less than a week ago, an India-made short video-sharing app, Chingari, had just about 25 lakh downloads on the Google Play Store. But then a quirk of fate played out for Chingari on 29 June and it zoomed past the 1-crore mark in just 72 hours.
This meteoric four-fold rise for the app came as the Narendra Modi government banned 59 Chinese apps Monday, following the tense border stand-off in Ladakh. In that list, the most prominent name was ByteDance-owned TikTok, a video-sharing platform that had taken India by a storm over the last couple of years, especially in far-flung areas.
Calls for boycott of Chinese goods and services, policy decisions and PM Modi’s stated objective of a self-reliant country sent Indians searching for an Indian alternative to the Chinese behemoth. Their hunt ended at Chingari, which received endorsements over the week from prominent personalities like Anand Mahindra.
Speaking to ThePrint about this dramatic swing in fortunes in an emailed interview, co-founder Sumit Ghosh called Chingari an “accidental start-up”, which he started with the second co-founder Biswatma Nayak.
He spoke about the journey of the app — which is incubated under Globussoft, a software development company that Ghosh founded nine years ago — since its launch in late 2018 and its recent success.
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Inception and launch
Ghosh met “tech genius” Nayak at his own Globussoft, describing the latter as an Android developer who can build complete apps in a day.
Around 2017, the duo started ideating about social media apps that would connect people from non-urban and non-cosmopolitan areas. They set about collecting user insights and laying out a plan for an app.
“Music.ly was really taking off, and these video apps were getting attention in the tier-2 and 3 towns of India,” said Ghosh, referring to the social video app environment then.
“India lives in tier-1 cities, and Bharat lives in tier-2 and tier-3 cities,” said Ghosh, who is the chief of product at Chingari. “Hailing from Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, I very well understand the needs of the tier-2 Bharat.”
He said the idea was to build a “super-app for India, where users will open it in the morning, consume some news, watch videos, get some entertainment, play some games, and just use it for everyday”.
The app took a year-and-a-half to build, according to Ghosh. During this process, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, and merged it with TikTok.
Chingari was released just a shortly thereafter, just as TikTok was gaining users, putting it on the backfoot right from the date of launch. However, Ghosh said the app is ballooning now.
“Our tech is very close to the creation experience of TikTok. Users can record a video, record a video over audio, act on a movie dialogue, and things like that. This is the main kind of content for teens. This is the reason why the app is doing well now,” said Ghosh.
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The recent growth
Initially, it was difficult to gain traction for Chingari and the duo had to work hard on marketing, said Ghosh.
“ByteDance and TikTok, as a Chinese state-funded (company), pumped in billions of dollars into the Indian market, which we as a self-funded bootstrap start-up couldn’t do. We struggled but didn’t give up. We kept trying to evolve the product to make it appealing,” he said.
The app performed steadily for over a year, with the team attempting hard to gain attention and users.
And then the ongoing India-China border stand-off hit the headlines in May.
Sonam Wangchuk, the educator and innovator who inspired the Phunsuk Wangdu character in Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, issued a call on YouTube, encouraging citizens to boycott Chinese goods, asking his viewers to give up “softwares in a week” and “hardwares in a year”.
“When the video of Sonam Wangchuk went viral, I realised this was the opportunity we needed and did some marketing on Instagram and other platforms for our app as Make in India. People then started sharing news and opinions about the app on other social media platforms,” said Ghosh.
This early move gave the platform momentum — it went from 1 lakh downloads to 25 lakh quickly. But the number climbed even further, and Ghosh credited the steep rise to a tweet by the billionaire chairman of Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra.
I hadn’t ever downloaded TikTok but I have just downloaded Chingari… More power to you… https://t.co/9BknBvb8j3
— anand mahindra (@anandmahindra) June 28, 2020
“The Times of India profiled us as a Made in India competitor to TikTok, and the story was tweeted by Anand Mahindra. In just 24 hours, we went from 2.5 million downloads to 3.5 million. The entire ecosystem was on fire,” he said.
Then India decided to ban TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps and suddenly Chingari had its opportunity.
“The ban really helped us, and we are trending in the top 3 social apps on the Google Play Store,” he said.
Now, the 20-strong developer team of Chingari is migrating to a new company, with plans of expansion and hiring at least 100 more people.
While the app is aiming for a long haul, the reviews for Chingari don’t reflect its quick success, and don’t come close to the love for TikTok.
“I’ve attempted to create an account, and post-creation, I’m always told my profile does not exist,” said Delhi-based media professional Tanzila Anis. “I have never been able to successfully log in, and I’ve only heard of people being unable to log in, which sometimes makes me wonder who’s posting all this content and how come the app works for them.”
Tech journalist Ivan Mehta echoed the concerns, calling the app “buggy”.
“There is no segregation of topics and most of them don’t have any hashtags to identify trends. When you tap on a hashtag, it fails to load. The app is overall buggy, and it appears the only thing they’ve managed to replicate from TikTok is the endless scrolling feed,” he said.
Users have also complained about the content and lack of curation and personalisation.
“The content is only sexualised women as far as you could see,” said Anis. “While a lot of videos might be similar to TikTok content, there is no curation. TikTok at least made sure your landing page is personalised for your preferred content. Further, there is no new content other than news. All videos you see seem to be several months old.”
Ghosh didn’t respond to concerns about user reviews.
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