Chingari wants to ride the wave of nationalism to TikTok-like heights in India

A mark of patriotism?
A mark of patriotism?
Image: Reuters/Hemanshi Kamani
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Until last week, not many people had even heard of Chingari. Now, the short-form video-sharing app is clocking around 300,000 downloads per hour.

The reason for this overnight popularity? It’s Indian.

The Narendra Modi government’s ban on TikTok has benefitted a host of homegrown apps like Chingari, which was first launched in 2018 but had only 2.5 million downloads until May.

Even as the long-term success of these apps still hangs in the balance, high on nationalist sentiment, Chingari’s co-founder and chief of product and growth Sumit Ghosh spoke to Quartz about how TikTok’s loss is his company’s gain. Ghosh now plans to hire “superstar” techies to strengthen Chingari. Edited excerpts:

Why did you create Chingari?

By 2018, Jio had launched and a huge wave of Indians from smaller cities were coming online. Biswatma Nayak, the co-founder of Chingari, and I wanted to make an app for Bharat. Those days, Musical.ly was going viral among teens so we got the idea to make a short-form video content app.

Why did you struggle to gain traction initially?

ByteDance bought Musical.ly and merged it with TikTok. Then TikTok came to India. It was a heavily state-funded company. In India, it got influencers on board and locked them into contracts. Obviously, you can’t compete with state money of China so we had users but we were very small compared to their 200 million.

What was your strategy to compete with TikTok prior to the ban?

We saw companies like Dailyhunt getting users and thought consuming news on the phone will become a trend. So, news became a feature in our app to increase retention. Then we added games like Ludo King and Bingo. The idea was to see which games are getting popular and build it out ourselves. We were also onboarding influencers by paying money and had a plan to monetise and pay 30% of all our revenue to influencers. That will still happen but now the game has changed.

What was a turning point for your app after the anti-China sentiment picked up?

(Industrialist) Anand Mahindra tweeted about us and shook up the whole ecosystem. We were recording 50,000 downloads per hour. We’d reached 3.5 million before the big bang announcement of the government ban happened.

How did things change after the ban?

At our peak, we were recording 600,000 downloads per hour. Right now, there’s no real app that has the creative features of TikTok. We’re the only one that offers the entire TikTok experience to users. We are way ahead of the competition in terms of technology. We’ve crossed 10 million downloads.

You tweeted about servers crashing. Users complained of a lack of functionality and slow speeds. How’re you dealing with the influx of traffic?

The last 72 hours have been crazy. The entire team worked for 48 hours straight and then we were taking 2-3 hour naps to keep the app up and running. Infrastructure-wise, Amazon Web Services (AWS) can handle many users. Netflix is built on it. Our app just has to be architected correctly for AWS to work. They deployed engineers and have been providing us 24×7 support.

Now, things are stable. Most of the app is loading fine. We’ve stopped some functionalities because we’re still optimising the back end of the app. Users have given a lot of feedback in the review section of the Play Store so we’re trying to improve their experience. We’ll be quickly innovating and adding more features.

In the next 24-48 hours, we’ll be ready for our primetime TikTok scale.

Why is it so important for you to ape TikTok itself?

We are in a space where less than 2% of users create content. Getting these creators is what TikTok cracked really well. Every person who downloads Chingari is a user that TikTok lost. Eventually, social apps grow by a network effect. So if you’re able to get 10-20 million of these users from TikTok automatically, you have a shot at winning.

Do you think other homegrown firms like Reposo or Mitron will give you stiff competition?

Mitron is basically a $50 script downloaded from Envato. It’s not built with tech and engineering for over 1.5 years like us. I haven’t seen any update happening on the app over the last two months. They might work on it now, but they’re still at least six months behind us. We’re onboarding 5-10 million users daily and it will continue for the next few weeks as word spreads. The game will be over by the time these competitors put out what we already have.

What are your hiring plans?

We will hire at least 100 people in the next two months. This will include the superstars of the tech ecosystem. Our listings will be out soon.

Are your data servers in India?

We respect data sovereignty and the privacy bill being tabled in the parliament. All our data is stored in AWS servers in Mumbai and this will always be the case.

Many Indian startups have been backed by Chinese investors in recent years. Where are you planning to raise funds from?

We are not going to raise a single cent from China or any Chinese company. Raising money from Chinese companies makes you Chinese. They’re on your board and they have all your information. We’ll be raising funds from marquee global VC firms who have been active in the ecosystem for a while. We’re in advanced talks with them.

If you want to be truly Indian, shouldn’t your investors also be Indian?

So far, most companies in India have been built by foreign capital. There have been entrepreneurs like Flipkart’s Bansals who have made money but it can’t really compete with the Tigers and Sequoias of the world. So obviously we need foreign capital to grow until the ecosystem gets mature enough. Silicon Valley took 25 years to get where it is today. India will have its own journey.