On June 28, a day before India banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok by citing cybersecurity concerns, Anand Mahindra, the billionaire chairman of Mahindra Group, tweeted he had downloaded a homegrown short-video app called Chingari.
Previously unheard of, Chingari, which is Hindi for “spark,” subsequently saw a surge in downloads the next day, after the ban was announced.
The Bengaluru-based company’s app went from racking up 3.5 million downloads in nearly two years to serving 600,000 downloads every hour. “Our backend was not ready for this kind of traffic. Our team had to put in a crazy 48 hours straight, ensuring our app doesn’t crash due to the surge in users,” Sumit Ghosh, co-founder of Chingari, told KrASIA.
Chingari had to act fast. There was no place for complacency because a handful of companies were building the exact same thing: a TikTok clone. More so, they were marketing their platforms based on the same idealistic lines: adopt local solutions and avoid Chinese products—a sentiment that had caught on quickly in India in the past few weeks, following renewed tensions on the Indo-China border.
“Our user numbers had started to surge before the ban, but it didn’t prepare us for what was coming. When the prime minister asked people to use local products and be vocal about it, we started seeing a moderate increase in app downloads, but it wasn’t anywhere close to what we experienced after the ban,” Ghosh said.
For two days, Ghosh and his co-founder Biswatma Nayak, along with their eight-member engineering team, worked with AWS (Amazon Web Services) to add more servers, hunt down bugs, and improved the app’s interface for users who were fervently looking for the next big thing after TikTok.
The origin story
In late 2017, Ghosh and Nayak wanted to build something that could build upon Indians’ increasingly common habit of watching videos online. “This was pre-TikTok days, when Jio had made data really cheap in the country, resulting into people from smaller towns coming on to the internet for the first time,” Ghosh said.
To harness this user behavior of video consumption, the duo decided to start something similar to Musical.ly and TikTok, as they had seen how quickly these apps became popular. However, before they could launch their product, TikTok entered India in 2018. With the help of its deep-pocketed parent company ByteDance, paired with its cutting-edge video-making technology, the app quickly became a household name in the country.
“Even though they were splurging millions of dollars to acquire influencers to create videos for them, and we knew we couldn’t compete with them, we didn’t give up and kept on building the app,” Ghosh said.
Chingari launched the first version of its app in November 2018. To differentiate themselves from TikTok, Chingari added news and games to its offering. Ghosh said he wanted users to see Chingari as more than just an app to create short videos. The company partnered with local news media companies and a gaming company called GamePix to curate mobile games on the app.
“The idea was to use news and games as a hook to retain users. A user would stay in the app for maximum of 20 to 25 minutes, but we want them to use Chingari as their daily habit,” he said.
Now, Chingari is cashing in on the craze to create bite-sized videos where people showcase their talents in 30 to 60 seconds. The company has moved the news feature and all the games to a separate tab.
“Right now, we feel our users expect better video-creating tools from Chingari rather than games. We are totally focused on that and are proud to say that our camera [function] is the best in the industry in terms of offering interesting filters, merging a song with the video, and editing different parts of the songs,” Ghosh said.
The company claims it has created its own machine learning tool that can predict users’ tastes and recommend videos accordingly. “We have a decent amount of data from 3.5 million daily active users who watch 100 to 150 videos a month. It will take another five to six months to perfect this model.”
VCs chasing the next short-video leader
Out of Chingari’s 25 million users, about half a million create videos on the app, Ghosh claimed. The company has partnered with 1,000 creators, paying them retainer fees to regularly create videos and come up with new ideas for hashtag challenges.
Ghosh said the company has closed its seed round, which will be announced by the end of this week. Already, a Series A round to the tune of USD 10 million is in the works. Chingari said it will increase its team’s size from the current 28 to over 100 in the next six months.
In the coming months, Ghosh said the company will launch new features for users to livestream their performances as well as chat with them.
So far, the company has not spent any money on marketing, but it has kick-started a talent contest promising a hefty cash prize, hoping to draw in more people and hit the 100 million user mark. Right now, Chingari has managed to rope in 15 consumer brands, including Emami and Lakme, to run campaigns during the talent contest.
“This event will catapult us to the network effect that we want to have on the platform. Once that kicks in, the user numbers will go up and the average time spent on the app will increase,” Ghosh said.
When asked what might happen if the ban is lifted and TikTok returns to India, Ghosh said, “The ban was never [part of] our business plan. Plus, we have already created our impression among users. I feel there is a lot of space for multiple platforms to co-exist.”
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.