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Opinion: Vernacular India is the next big internet wave

400 million non-English speaking Indians will use the internet for the first time 

VERNACULAR INDIA, INDIANS : The last decade has seen internet companies in India solve urban problems, mainly owing to the fact that urban India adopted the internet first. Cab sharing, food delivery, home services are all examples of urban Indian problems. The users for which these problems were solved are Indians with the knowledge of English and form less than 10% of the population. 90% of India does not speak English. India has 22 official languages with 6,000-plus dialects and 55-plus languages with 1 million-plus speakers. We are one of the few countries with more than one language. Most large countries such as the US, the UK, Australia and China, have one or two languages spoken across the country. With the internet and smartphone revolution in India and rising aspiration among the masses, there is a need among the next 500 million internet users (India already has 400 million internet users of which more than 300 million prefer local languages) to make progress and harness the power of the internet.

India’s internet is about to spiral into one of the largest segments in the world. 400 million new consumers will be using the internet for the first time and none of them will be English speaking. This will make the language internet user a base of almost 600-700 million users—twice the size of the US population.

The opportunity definitely sounds exciting, but the path to build companies for the next billion users isn’t a bed of roses. The founders of the last decade have mainly solved problems that they personally have faced, which isn’t easy in itself. Tapping the next billion audiences would require to build through a thorough understanding of a user who behaves very differently from the urban English speaking audience of India. This makes it important to have an ability to experiment rapidly and to be comfortable to discard 80% of the experiments.

Also, there’s the danger of getting replicated easily. After investing a few years in experiments, it would be horrible if there was an exact replica of the product you’ve built. It’s not just an Indian competitor that you would need to be aware of, the Chinese companies have already started replicating all the platforms that work for the vernacular audience. This happens if the company hasn’t created a barrier to entry. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but those who do manage to create a strong barrier to entry will rule the vernacular internet for the foreseeable future.

Attracting users is one part of the challenge. The other is the question of how a vernacular content platform makes money. Advertising might not yield anywhere close to what the English audience platforms yield. The largest platforms are struggling with advertising revenue from India. Unless there is a strong unique value proposition for the user, making money from them would be very difficult. A deep understanding of what the next billion pays for will help innovate for handsome monetization.

The race to acquire the next billion Indians has started. The next wave of internet companies will solve unique Indian problems, which arrive from a deep understanding of the daily lives of non-English speaking Indians. Finding these daily habits will require patience to experiment over a long period of time. The companies that exhibit this patience will reap rewards in the long term. They are the ones that will succeed. For everyone who watched the e-commerce, cab and payment battles over the last decade—grab some popcorn, here comes the next battlefield.

Aprameya Radhakrishna is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Vokal

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