Bengaluru: ShareChat, a local-language social media app that, if successful, could shape the social experience of millions of Indians coming online for the first time, still has a long road ahead. In an interview, chief executive officer Farid Ahsan talks about the challenge of scaling up a home-grown social app and the importance of the young start-up team reining itself in and focusing on building a business. Edited excerpts:
What’s next for ShareChat?
You’ll see a major change in the way the app functions. You can expect a lot more variety in the content formats available. You can expect a lot more content creators becoming celebrities, and see people who become famous on ShareChat.
There are certain people with 300,000 followers on ShareChat, those people definitely deserve to become celebrities. Regional newspapers started covering them in some cases. You can expect a mix of what would have happened had YouTube and Twitter launched together on a single platform.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced while building ShareChat?
One of the biggest challenges we have is teaching the audience what a feed is, why you follow someone, why you create content. That is one thing which is missing in all the social networks and that’s why our audience, which is this new audience that has come up in India, finds it extremely difficult to use Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat.
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Then there’s this following around start-ups now, but I keep reminding myself that we’re not supposed to be stars, and we’re supposed to put our heads down and keep building our business. I think containing ourselves, getting our focus without having work experience was a bit difficult, especially for me. You can easily go brag, but till the time you haven’t actually cracked something, there’s no point.
How exactly do you plan to build the “WeChat of India"?
WeChat is essentially a social layer at the bottom, and in the middle there’s an official accounts layer where real-life personalities, brands are sitting, and then you have a transaction layer, and then on the top you have a mini-apps layer. Now, the social layer can be anything. It can be a Twitter, it can be a Facebook, it can be an Instagram, it can be a WhatsApp. In China’s case, the social layer was a messenger, and then everything they built together was called WeChat.
We have a goal in mind that we have to build the WeChat of India. For that, we need a social network at the bottom, and we need a content layer. We built the content layer, we’re building the social network and then we’ll build WeChat. Had Facebook been able to execute Facebook gifts, Facebook would have enabled transactions on top of it, and then you would have said WeChat is the Facebook of China. WeChat was lucky to be born in China. When you are in a fair market it’s much more difficult to execute something like a WeChat.
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Why we feel we will be able to is because firstly, it’s difficult for those coming from outside to build for this audience and secondly, the deeper we go, the better we become from whatever possible combination that can arise.
Unless someone like Facebook comes and says, you know, “The way Amazon is fighting Flipkart, we are going to fight ShareChat"—unless something like that happens—we’re fine. We’ll execute it.
Who do you look to for inspiration as a company and as CEO?
There’s this book by Eric Schmidt called How Google Works. I think we’ve all memorized that by now. As a company when we function we try to be more like Intel and Google, as a product we try to be more like WeChat and as founders we look up to the PayPal team or the PayPal Mafia as they’re popularly known. We’ve read all their biographies as well.
Do you think you’ll be able to maintain the same kind of community as you scale? For instance, hate speech on a platform like Facebook is flagged based on certain keywords; can you do the same through automation on ShareChat for different languages? How else are you planning to maintain the “happy atmosphere" as you described it, as you add more and more users?
Our community team does two things—one is to capture trends and the other is to look at complaints and make sure no hate speech actually becomes big.
And yes, we are already handling such kind of content automatically. When you are trying to build a community, it is easily possible that sub-communities start forming after crossing a certain scale. Moreover, we are now empowering users to report content of such type and in the future we will be introducing tools for further strengthening of the community around these power users.
An algorithm alone won’t help you though. You will need people to convince other people.
Culture is considered very important at start-ups. What do you at ShareChat do to create the kind of culture you need to build the network that you’re building?
Our first value is ship it. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a big fix or a small app release, just get it done. That’s our culture. For us it’s not about refrigerators full of fancy food or pool tables. You want to come in at 9, you come at 9. You want to stay the night, we have beds here. You can move around in shorts, that’s fine with us too, but just get your work done.
I owe that to my college. We started right after college and the people we started working with were also freshers or just had a year’s experience, so the college feel was still present in them. In college, you have to do your homework, you have to finish your lab report and you have to attend classes and you have to make sure that you pass your exams, and if I want to summarize that in three words I’d say “Just ship it"—and that’s exactly the kind of culture that got extended here. So I think it’s worked for us till now.