With technology well and truly invading the average Indian household, the way consumers choose to conduct business has also changed, radically. Everything happens on the touch of a button on a mobile device. In this scenario, it is imperative for the average SMB owner in a smaller Tier II city to also be able to connect to his more tech-savvy consumer and conduct business online.
There is a disparity between this need to digitise a business, awareness for the process required to onboard a business online and the means to do so.
This is where Applop comes in – a one-stop platform that promises a ‘digital dukaan’ in minutes, along with a simple payment gateway called ‘Applop Pay’ for small business owners in Tier II, III cities. This three-year-old startup is trying to solve a simple pain point that is faced by every single SMB/SME in India – digitisation.
Digitisation Of India, One SMB At A Time
Applop’s co-founder Rahul Singhal begins chronicling his journey – that of a serial entrepreneur from small town India who dreamed of making it big all over India, and then the world. No small dream for the man who eventually founded an app development platform named Applop. The platform claims to help one build and take any app live in 0-12 hours with a visible presence in over 145 countries, across social media and mobile platforms.
He hails from a small town in Chhattisgarh, and moved to Bengaluru for his engineering education. A short stint at a corporate lit the entrepreneurial fire in Rahul’s gut and he started his first venture in 2008/09. In Rahul words, “It was an SMS solutions company for brands and corporates to take advantage of, at a time when DM (direct messaging) was reaching its peak in India.” As per Rahul, he sold off the company in 2009 to a Raipur businessman. He also started another venture in the ERP vertical but eventually wound back home to work in the family business in 2009.
“I worked at the family business making power plants for five years, from 2009-14,” says Rahul. It was the time when Paytm, Flipkart, Snapdeal were catching fire and the concept of Digital India was more real than it had ever been. With social media and quicker Internet access making the transition easier, Tier I cities were already digitised. Rahul recognised that this leap will take considerable longer to happen in Tier II towns, and at the same time, the need for businesses (SMBs) to go digital, as soon as possible.
“Even traditional businesses need websites, apps to compete for market share in every domain. For me, Applop, at its heart is about this digitalisation of small town India,” he adds.
Making App Development That Was Relevant, Affordable, And Fast
Rahul did not just stumble into the app development vertical – he took a year (2013-2014) to conduct due diligence. The idea was incepted in 2014 – namely, understanding the way a business could digitise itself. As he says, “A website, social media presence, payment gateway, and a mobile that was easy and intuitive to use. These are the prerequisites to any business going live online.”
After digging around in the space, he realised that his engineering degree had become obsolete in the intervening few years. Technology had accelerated exponentially and even the native apps being powered by Java were running out of steam. He reached out to a few friends in Tier I cities such as Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad and realised the biggest hurdle – building a single app for all platforms required a minimum investment of INR 1.5 Lakhs and 3-6 months of time.
“App development at that time was cumbersome, time-consuming and, most of all, expensive,” shares Rahul. “When I came up with the idea of Applop, it was simple – app development should be easy, affordable, and fast for Tier II, III markets.”
And it was this vision that Rahul used to his ‘baniye ka dimaag’ (businessman brain) advantage, and got his Aha! moment. “As a traditional businessman, I know the advantages of having a ‘pull business idea’ versus a ‘push idea.’ And Applop is pull, all the way.” The way he explains it, a push business is when you create a need for the product/service you’re launching and offer it to the customer. In a pull business, it is the other way round – the need exists, you’re merely fulfilling it.
“Our initial pitch was this – from 0 to hero in 12 hours in 145 countries. Applop will create app for you, customised to your preferences and it will go live on Google Play Store, Apple’s App Store across the world and people will be able to access it, immediately. We essentially ensured that the barrier to entry was broken,” he adds, with no small amount of pride.
This claim is backed by the success of DevKripa Panipuriwala – a small panipuri stall vendor in Surat, whose story about being onboarded on the app was covered by local media. The owner claims that his business took a leap from INR 3,650 to INR 2 Lakhs due to the app, as he was able to connect with clients who needed larger orders fulfilled – at marriages and other social gatherings.
Turning User Preference Into An App In 5 Minutes Flat
The core product ‘GoAppMaker’ – a wireframe of sorts – which has been integrated into its Digital Dukaan – Applop Pay, is for anyone and everyone who wants an app. The simplicity with which the process of building this app has been streamlined is testament to this fact. The target audience for the product are freelancers (bloggers, photographers), homemakers with boutique business and niche markets and small business owners from any of the Tier cities who wish to be connected digitally.
The product, at its core, works on an AI stack. The process is simple – a prospective user inputs the preferences and tastes that they have for the kind of app that they’d like for their business to have and then the algorithm does all the heavy lifting to identify the set up the user would want for their business. The newly revamped app also called ‘Applop Pay’ integrates DM facility, a micro website, social media presence and a simple payment gateway by inputting phone numbers in lieu of bank account numbers by creating a backend APK (application program kit).
Applop Pay has been launched in the wake of the demonetisation drive of November 2016 and is the first formal bifurcation of Applop’s products. The new app provides a chatbot functionality that drives the business for its users. It aims to connect, communicate and even solve for queries from prospective customers. The payment gateway also works on a missed call system to facilitate ease of paying.
It has a focus on regional languages and the price point is also conducive to the Indian market. As Rahul tells it, the starting price on building a professional app is absolutely free and can go up to INR 3,650.
And the Applop team is small – a 10-member strong company sitting out of Gurugram. “Every other company that offers app development would probably have a plethora of backend engineers sitting in an office, working to produce the desired results. But in our case, since we are an automating platform, we have ensured it is automated on our end too,” he says.
“The Concept Became Real After Pitching At Nascomm 10K”
Ideation for this product took about a year during which time the startup was in stealth mode and was formally launched in August 2015 – the product and platform going live then. Rahul mentions two important events that took place from July-September 2015 – the first being selected as one of the Top six startups at INC in Mumbai and the second one was pitching at Nasscom’s 10K Startup Warehouse platform in Kolkata.
“These were the first two places we pitched to, when my concept became a real product. We got selected at Nasscom 10K Startup Warehouse in September 2015 with a two-member team, my wife and I.”
Applop’s technology proved to be something that even investors believed in, which was how the startup raised a seed round of $100K from GHV Accelerator in December 2015. In year one itself, the company was reportedly declaring gross revenues of INR 11 Lakhs, and still playing Tier II markets from Raipur and Kolkata. When prompted as to why he clubs Kolkata in a small-town market he elaborates with,
“Kolkata, at its heart, is a place where everyone knows everyone’s business. It is home to me because of my family’s business. And, so, it wasn’t a new market for me to establish Applop in.”
Wanting A Maruti, Instead Of A Ferrari: Essential Features Matter
In retrospect, relocating to Gurugram was both a boon and a bane, as it exposed the team to the real Indian startup culture. So far, Applop has been playing with homecourt advantage, in a smaller market they were familiar with.
“In Tier I markets, we stepped out of our comfort zone radically. The UI/UX of the product got reiterated a number of times because we had to learn to think like our customers in the newer, expanded markets – they wanted a more sophisticated look and feel than what was being offered.”
Applop then developed a feature-rich, more expansive version of the GoAppMaker and tested it out in the market. The dual challenge of catering to the taste of a different kind of small business owner (grocery store, electronic store etc.) as well as simplifying the process of digitalisation was not without missteps.
“After a few months, when we didn’t see the expected traction, we realised that we were chasing a Ferrari when what we needed was a Maruti,” he chuckles. Translation – products need to simply solve the problem they were supposed to, not be feature-rich ‘Ferraris.’
Once the product was pared down to its essentials, Applop Pay continues to see 170% week-on-week growth since launch and, as per Rahul, has 10,000 users onboard.
Building For India, Going Global
It’s this attitude and sound reason with which Rahul and team are tackling their competitors too. Applop faces global competition from companies such as Appify, Appmachine, Appmatter among others. In India, Instappy, SnapLion (founded by EDM band Medieval Punditz’s Tapan Ra), Plobal Apps are a few serious contenders for the go-to-market app space.
“You have to understand, 57% Indians still come online through their phones. A local shopkeeper cannot use WiFi, which doesn’t exist, or laptops which he cannot afford, to go online. A smartphone is all he has. The global companies are not a good fit for India, as they assume the user comes with pre-existing tech knowledge, which might or might not be the case here,” he says.
Applop works on a different philosophy than other app development systems – DIFY – the do it for you principle. And Rahul counts this philosophy as the primary driver for having 6,000 SMB owners on the platform.
The other ways Applop is combating competition is by keeping the focus on the consumer – adding regional languages such as Hindi to the repertoire. As well as the aforementioned price points, which is in keeping with the Indian consumer mentality.
“Our idea is simple – India’s language diversity is vast. So, if we can capture the local market share by catering to different local languages, then making the jump to international languages is the next, obvious step,” he says.
Applop Events, Future Plans And More
But the company has not rested on its laurels in app development and fintech. Applop Events, an event management solutions app, was launched in December 2016. Its product diversification has continued with the launch of another app in an unrelated vertical – event management.
According to Rahul, the app has seen significant traction in the three months of launch. It has been used by IVCA, IIM-Indore and the Haryana International Film Fests, and the company has managed to tie up with 40 clients/customers in the same duration.
While talk turns to the future and Rahul mentions product reiterations with NLP and machine learning integrations so, “your app will truly run your business, not you,” as well as an AR/VR immersive experience of local stores from the comfort of a customer’s home, team Applop’s main focus is firmly on the original pain point: global technologies need to be brought to India and tested out at an affordable cost.
“We have never focussed on funding, rather on solving the deepest problems of digitising India and providing end-to-end solutions. It’s what makes us unique,” ends Rahul.
A Business Standard report suggests that 48.8 Mn SMB units were operational in 2013, growing at a CAGR of 4.53%. This number has grown exponentially to become an estimated $25.8 Bn market for emerging technologies by 2020. The potential for growth in digitising SMEs is immense and immediate.
Applop, with its DIFY model, its sensibilities firmly geared toward retaining customers by providing them with expansive and ready-to-use features in their Digital Dukaan, has established a business model that seems to be hitting the mark. But competition from established global players who are finally turning their attention towards India as well as local players such as Instappy, SnapLion and more is something that the startup needs to watch out for.
Also, in keeping with its philosophy of making it uber-easy for the non-tech-savvy business owner to get onboard the ‘Digital India’ train, the company needs to keep thinking forward and looking inward for problem-solving as well as product iteration that keeps evolving technology at the forefront. Will Applop be able to accomplish this on its way to achieving scale and growth? That remains to be seen.
Applop is part of Inc42’s 42 Fellowship – a year-long fellowship programme for India’s top growing and upcoming startups with the aim to build a close-knit community who can help each other multiply their impact.