How Hike, India’s Fast Growing Mobile Messaging App, Is Banking On SMS & Local Diversity To Beat The Big Boys

It’s still practically a newborn but Indian mobile messaging app Hike is already channelling almost a billion messages a month between its five million registered users. Those numbers sound insignificant when you stack them up against the big beasts of the messaging space – WhatsApp claims 200 million+ monthly active users, and some 600 billion in and outbound messages – but Hike’s growth is  impressive when you consider it’s only just over four months old. WhatsApp, of course, has been around for almost four years.

Mobile messaging is hot property right now, with tech giants like Facebook and most recently Google bent on owning the messaging space. The reason for all this interest in cross-platform chit-chat is that mobile messaging looks poised to steal social networking’s crown jewels: aka the cool factor, and thus the user engagement (Hike incorporates social status updates and emoji-based moods into its messaging app, to hang on the social chain). But the idea that there can be one ultimate mobile messaging winner — or one player as dominant as Facebook in the full-fat social networking space — seems unlikely. And that’s what Hike is banking on to disrupt WhatsApp and keep Facebook Messenger and its ilk from crashing its just-getting-started party.

There’s no doubt that local market realities intercede much more on mobile than on the traditional social networking playground of the desktop, especially in emerging markets where device, network and carrier variations influence how people communicate based on how they can afford to communicate. Those complexities provide an opportunity for local app makers to triumph over goliath outsiders if they build fixes for the local market, argues Hike.

“Given how competitive this market is we do feel that in about 3 or 5 years from now you will have somewhere between three to five players globally that own parts of the messaging space in the world. You’re already seeing it right now, you have Line in Japan, you have Kakao in Korea, you have WeChat in China, you have WhatsApp in South America and Europe, you have of course Facebook message or iMessage dominating in U.S. and WhatsApp growing there too. In India of course WhatsApp is the dominant player but we’ve come on to be a very strong number two in just four months,” says Hike creator Kavin Mittal.

“We can see that with communication if you solve local problems in the market there is room for a local player to win the market completely.”

Hike is one of the latest contenders to jump into the mobile messaging space, albeit with a few neat tricks up its sleeve that it’s confident will allow it to grab significant share in its chosen markets — namely India, and other similar emerging markets in place like Indonesia, the Middle East and Africa. Some 60% of Hike’s registered users are in India, 40% globally led by the Middle East and Germany (despite its emerging markets focus, Germany was actually the first market to spike an interest in Hike — which its creator puts down to it having 128bit encryption over Wi-Fi and Germans looking for a “much more secure solution to WhatsApp”).

On the neat tricks front, Hike has baked a patent-pending SMS conversion tool into its app to take advantage of fragmentation in the Indian market caused by low distribution of data-capable smartphones. So this is not just about incorporating SMS messages into a unified app — as Google plans to with its Hangouts app — but about making sure a data message can still reach someone who doesn’t have data, via the SMS channel.

Mittal explains that in India, even where people own smartphones they may not have data enabled, or  may sporadically turn data off to save money. SMS is therefore still a key comms channel that needed to be brought into the loop. This fragmentation was the problem the app’s creators were setting out to solve with Hike. They have also done this in as low cost a way as possible by building a system that ensures it does not send cross-network SMSes (which incur a termination fee in India) but routes same network to same network.

“The idea behind Hike… is it works free globally. Hike is available on iPhone, Windows, Android S40, S60, very soon BlackBerry now as well. But in case you don’t have a phone than can install Hike, or let’s say you have a phone but you don’t have data, I can still message you from Hike for free. We convert the IP message into an SMS and it’s free for me as a Hike user, to which you can reply back to – and the reply comes back straight to my inbox making messaging very  seamless. So I have one app for all my friends,”  Mittal tells TechCrunch.

Another future trick — due to launch on June 10 — is something that will allow users who have turned off their data to still be notified that they have a message waiting for them, presumably so they know to turn data back on. “At this point in the market there’s no way to notify you when you have a message waiting on one of these applications. So we’re launching something on June 10th that’s going to solve this problem, so no matter where you are – no matter if you’re online or offline – you’ll be able to communicate via Hike with your friend all the time,” he adds.

Hike is funding the conversion cost of sending the SMSes itself —  in the Indian market, with a view to extending it to other emerging markets with similar dynamics — so that is one of its largest sunk costs at the moment, according to Mittal. But its monetisation strategy is based on building off that base in another way. The shift Hike’s creators are ultimately calculating on is the movement of consumer spending in its target emerging markets away from carrier ‘value add services’ — paid for infotainment SMSes and so on — to data-based content and entertainment.

That’s where Hike sees its future profits, by fleshing out its messaging offering to supplement the bread and butter of social comms with “content that’s very relevant to the local market” — much as the Line messaging app is already doing with entertainment content such as stickers and games.

“India is a country of 20 countries. There’s so much diversity, cultural differences, dialects, languages that one has to cater to and given that this is a big entertainment market there is no doubt we’re going to go down the route of enriching messaging around content,” he says. “If you look at why you message it’s around a piece of content, topic, video, something new you’ve found, something funny. And India it’s much more prevalent than other markets so we’re definitely going down that route, there’s no doubt about it.”

Hike is also looking to work with carriers to share some of the SMS conversion cost, with the benefit for carriers being that Hike is acting as an IP pusher, turning mobile owners into data drivers — and data is ultimately where carriers in these emerging will be making their future revenues from too.

“Given the traction we’ve had in the Indian market we’ve seen a lot of interest from the operators who want to work closely with Hike and figure out how to expand and grow the traction with Hike because what we’re doing for the operators is we’re introducing a lot of people to data,” says Mittal. “What one can also do over SMS is send photos, videos and so forth, so if I’m on Hike and do  SMS I can send you a picture and you get a link on SMS so you can open it on a browser, so we’re striking deals in the Indian market and the emerging markets like Middle East and Africa where the cost is not only bourn by us but by the operator too.”

Hike is starting out with more resources than most startups, being created by BSB, a 50:50 Bharti Softbank joint venture, that acts as a “quasi-strategic incubator”, as Mittal puts it. Bharti Softbank invested $7 million into Hike about a month ago — a measure of how much traction the app had managed to achieve in a few short months. BSB projects get their first round funded by the parent companies if they achieve enough traction.

Going forward, Hike will likely look outside for funding, says Mittal — assuming it can keep on growing, and reach its goal of at least 10 million registered users (“our internal critical number”), which it views as the baseline required before starting to think seriously about monetisation.

“By the end of the year we’ll be in a positon to raise money from the external market. The reason we’re doing that is the VC market in India has less of an appetite for taking massive risk.  Because one of the first questions to ask is ‘hey guys why are you building another messaging app?’ And we were pretty certain that if we did what we did we’d get the traction and so far we’ve proved it,” says Mittal. “We’re in a point where we have the $7 million but we will look outside, even possibly the West Coast for funding.”

Mittal won’t put a figure on Hike’s active user base but says it’s “amongst the highest we’ve seen in the industry and definitely way above 50%”. “We feel there is a room for a local player to dominate markets like India, Africa and China and so forth,  and take care of the local needs, and that is something we’re working on. That’s the big philosophy we have at BSB,” he adds.

India’s technology-adoption stratification poses a huge challenge when you’re trying to build an app that lets people talk to whoever they want. A challenge that, ultimately, gives the local kid a toehold over global mobile messaging players, argues Hike.

“The market kind of splits India into three sort of broad demographics, the top part really mimics the U.S. population  — 30, 40 million people – they’re really switched on, they know about the Internet, they have smartphones and so on and so forth; there are about 150 million people that are experimenting with the Internet, but they have a lot of churn there because the Internet is still not a utility for these guys; and then you have a billion people at the bottom of the pyramid that have no clue whatsoever the Internet even is,” says Mittal.

“As you go further down in India, how do you tackle the one billion people? No one knows but we’re in India here, so we’re the guys to figure it out.”