Ever since a spat between the Indian government and Twitter intensified earlier this year over the latter’s refusal to remove a few tweets that were critical of India’s farm laws, the prospects of Twitter’s local competitor, Koo, are beginning to look bright.
Bengaluru-headquartered micro-blogging platform Koo, named after a cuckoo’s call, started trending on Twitter on February 9 after several ministers from the Indian government, including India’s railway minister, tweeted to direct their followers to connect with them on Koo. While the app was mentioned by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few months earlier in a radio broadcast, the real growth for the company came after the feud between New Delhi and Twitter escalated in February.
“Key ministers from the government of India joined our platform because the current microblogging space [Twitter] does not comply with certain rules. They had to make sure there is another place where they can go to connect with citizens,” Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder of Koo, told KrASIA.
In February this year, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified new guidelines under IT Rules 2021. The rules intend to hold social media companies accountable for the content posted on their platform. To that effect, social media companies have to appoint a compliance officer who should be available round the clock to address government concerns including post takedowns within 72 hours of the request. Twitter has called the IT rules unconstitutional and is contesting them in an Indian court.
While Twitter is embroiled in a long-drawn battle with the government, its local competitor Koo is using the time to grow. Koo recorded over 3 million downloads in the two days after it started trending on Twitter, soaring well above 1 million downloads in the entirety of January.
The bird’s call
Radhakrishna is a serial entrepreneur. His first startup was a cab-hailing company called TaxiForSure. In 2016, one year after he sold the firm to Ola for USD 200 million, he started a peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing app named Vokal. Similar to Quora, users post questions on the app and wait for others to provide answers. They can do this by either typing or recording a voice message, and Vokal specifically welcomed users to do this in their own languages; India has 22 officially recognized major languages and hundreds of dialects. Radhakrishna said the idea to build Koo came to him while scaling Vokal.
In late 2019, Radhakrishna, along with his co-founder Mayank Bidwakta, started traveling to different states to speak with Vokal users to understand what they look for in a social networking platform. The objective was to build new features for Vokal based on their interactions with users.
“During our visit to Lucknow [a north Indian city], we asked people what their interests were. They didn’t know how to answer. But when we asked them who they follow online, whose opinions they admire, or what kind of news interests them, within 30 seconds, they came up with a lot of answers,” Radhakrishna said.
I am now on Koo.
Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates.
Let us exchange our thoughts and ideas on Koo.
— Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) February 9, 2021
Then there was another set of users, who, instead of just posting questions on Vokal, wished they could express their opinions in their own language, follow people of similar interest, and most importantly, bond with others who share the same linguistic background.
“The users we spoke with don’t use Twitter and haven’t even heard of it. They use Facebook, but it is largely to connect with their existing friends. What they were looking for was something that could connect them with new people online based on some commonality,” Radhakrishna said.
The co-founders used the feedback to create a prototype of Koo, which had some of the functionality of Twitter but localized language options. Koo launches in March 2020 and has so far clocked more than 6 million downloads.
The app’s look and feel are similar to Twitter’s. Koo’s logo is a bird, albeit a yellow one, in contrast to Twitter’s sky blue Larry T. Bird. Its features are the same as Twitter’s—post, follow, and curate a personalized feed. There are hashtags, polls, verified users, and trending topics, all of which are already familiar to Twitter users.
“You can say that Facebook looks like Orkut, and Koo looks like Twitter. The concept of social networks, to a certain extent, is limited to feeds. We have made slight changes, like instead of ‘retweet,’ we have the option to ‘re-Koo’; we don’t have a heart button, we have a like button. There are only so many ways you can tweak the design of a social media app,” Radhakrishna said.
Koo’s global expansion
In addition to India tightening its grip on Twitter, this year the micro-blogging platform continues to face scrutiny from governments around the world including Russia and Nigeria. With Twitter experiencing serious setbacks in some other parts of the world, Koo is looking to expand beyond India. Last week, after Nigeria indefinitely banned Twitter—the consequence of a series of events that started with Twitter deleting a tweet by the country’s president—Radhakrishna announced that Koo went live in Nigeria. Within a week, the Nigerian government made an official account on Koo and already has over 2,300 followers.
At a time when it seems like Facebook and Twitter dominate social media spheres, the sudden rise of Koo—with endorsements from Indian government officials—has intrigued both Indian and overseas VCs.
Last month, Tiger Global led a USD 30 million Series B round for Koo just three months after it raised USD 4 million in February. “Tiger Global has been quite aggressive in its investments in India lately. They like investing in market leaders, and we are definitely at the forefront,” Radhakrishna said.
According to the founder, social media companies that are building platforms in local languages are going to be the next big thing in India as more people connect to the internet across the country. Currently, Koo’s users can navigate the app as well as write posts in six different languages. “We want to build communities in each language. We see people discuss topics that are relevant to their community in their own language. Hence, hashtag trends are also in the local languages,” he said.
Radhakrishna said there is no rush for the company to formulate revenue channels as it is still developing the product and acquiring new users. Once the company reaches 100 million downloads, it will start monetizing. “We want to innovate further around the theme of expressing in one’s own language. We are lucky to have found this sweet spot during the research to develop Vokal in 2019,” he said.
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.