At a time when WhatsApp has over 400 Mn users in India, can other messaging and communication platforms hope to stand a chance in this market? Hike’s Kavin Bharti Mittal certainly thinks so. The company revamped its Hike Sticker Chat earlier this year with a deeper focus on AI and machine learning to not only help sticker discovery, but also create some stickers on the go. That overhaul has helped Hike add 60K stickers since Sticker Chat was released. And to double down on this front, Hike has brought on board Ankur Narang as VP of AI and data technologies. An IIT Delhi alumni, Narang has over 25 years of technical experience in full stack tech, product design, AI/ML, high-performance computing and he was leading the AI team at Yatra Online in his former role.
Last month, Hike announced that Sticker Chat has crossed a big milestone — 1 Mn weekly active users — and Mittal told Inc42 earlier this week that pivoting from a super app and unbundling the Hike platform to offer chat as a standalone experience was a risk. He believes that the traction is solely down to how Hike used machine learning and artificial intelligence to solve its problem of having stickers in multiple languages, colours and versions. Mittal attributed the success of the AI implementation in the platform to the company’s focus on talent acquisition.
“We have been investing heavily in young talent, and we have also been looking to combine it with some top industry veterans and that’s where Ankur (Narang) comes in. He’s going to come on board and bolster the AI/ML piece that we have been focussing on for the past two years,” Mittal said. He added that Hike Sticker Chat currently sees engagement time of 33 minutes a day among the active user base, which is commendable in a world where WhatsApp is a permanent alternative.
Hike’s AI Ecosystem For India
Mittal was quick to point out that it’s not just about Hike Sticker Chat, or anything else that Hike does in the future. It’s about building an AI/ML ecosystem that’s born out of India and focussing on the problems in the domestic market. And because the approach worked for Hike Sticker Chat, the company is going all-in on this approach.
“We are the among the very few companies in this country that are doubling down on AI/ML in this way, and we are really seriously hoping to grow an AI/ML team out of this country that can solve challenges in the Indian market. A lot of the work we do is around natural language processin, and it’s not just around English but all these regional Indian languages, which is a very big challenge for us to solve,” Mittal added.
Besides using AI for language processing, Hike is also working on computer vision, object recognition and speech recognition, which form a part of its communication platform. Narang’s primary focus will be on Sticker Chat, but he would also be consulting on everything that Hike is working on. And that includes the unbundled experience in the future. Mittal declined to elaborate on how Hike is looking at content and gaming as its next vertical focus as part of the unbundling from the super app model. One part of it could be Hike’s recent investment in Winzo, which Mittal said offered exciting opportunities.
Competing With Messaging Giants
Will the sharpened focus on providing a unique messaging experience will continue to have an addressable market? Mittal doesn’t agree that Hike has no relevance in a market which is dominated by WhatsApp and has major competition in the form of Facebook, Messenger, Telegram and others. His primary contention is that apps which cater to everyone or the “mass market” as he puts it, need that large user base to sustain, and as a result their models are also skewed towards that.
“We are building an application that’s dedicated towards you spending time with your close friends. And when you look at the business model as well; their business model is driven by ads and our business model is not. And that’s why they need the world on their platform, while a non-ad business model does not.”
We are building in a way where we focus on the four, five or six close relationships that you have. And it’s very hard for a mass market platform to focus on the depth of the relationship of close friends.
Mittal is certain that building for those relationships means using AI, and that means constantly getting in new talent. The company currently has 135-140 employees, and Mittal says this would go up to 200 by the end of the year. “By the end of the year we are targetting a million stickers. See, it’s a content game. Content has to be fresh all the time. You may like a ‘Thank You’ (sticker) in blue, but I may like it in red. That’s the reason we need a million stickers.”