As the newly minted Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan once said,
“And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
To be later to win
For the times they are a-changin.”
Entrepreneurs are a peculiar breed – tenacious, strong-willed, and myopic in their vision to achieve unicorn status by whichever means possible. They are also very possibly brave, venturing into the unknown minds and hearts of fickle consumers in order to give them something they didn’t think they needed in the first place – it’s called solving a pain point.
It’s what made Uber what it is today, indispensable in some ways. And it’s why the first thing a millennial does is post #feelingawesome on their Facebook page when something ‘awesome’ happens. Defining this awesome is a job for the dictionaries of the world, but when it comes to entrepreneurs, one can bet the bank that the most awesome thing for them is their business; the product – which reigns supreme.
And it is with this thought in mind that Ankur Singla, Vishal Pal Chaudhury, Avinash Vankadaru, and Vishrut Chalsani, co-founders of the product formerly known as Helpchat have rebranded to Tapzo – “an “all-in-one app” for the user and a marketing platform for our API partners,” in Ankur’s words. “The product remains exactly the same for the last 12 months. The rebranding was triggered because of customer feedback,” he is vehement in insisting.
Why the name change would be the most obvious question to ask at this point, but for Sequoia-backed Helpchat, nothing is as obvious as it seems. And, on the other hand, its entire journey is an open book.
From the first time it came into the market, to the pivot to a chat-based solution and more, the team has had its fair share of notoriety. While this makes for excellent drama, the deeper issues that need to be looked at, dissected, and understood are the need of the day – especially in an emerging, growing startup ecosystem such as India where success stories are so few and failures are still not worn as badges of honour.
This is Inc42’s attempt to trace the journey of a startup that has shown incredible promise in its many avatars and yet can’t seem to make up its mind which avatar it wants to stick to.
The Akosha Pivot And The Haptik Controversy
Tapzo’s first iteration was Akosha – started in 2009 by as a complaint redressal forum where, quite simply a user could go to the website, fill a form based on the kind of complaint they had (legal, finance, government-related, consumer-related) and a ticket would be generated for the same. The inbound team would work on addressing the complaint while the legal team would draft the documents required to submit to the consumer forum.
“We have always wanted to solve unique Indian problems,” says Ankur. “When we started Akosha in 2010, our vision was to build a platform to help consumers getting their customer service issues resolved.” A very basic premise that nonetheless seemed to work as Ankur claimed in a blog post later on.
The paid-subscription service was that of availing expert advice while the complaint was being addressed for resolution. The startup received Seed funding from Sequoia Capital in 2011 to the tune of $200K.
Coraza Technologies, the parent company that ran Akosha also launched another product called OneDirect, which was an ORM support tool for big brands such as Aircel, Vodafone to name just two of them and which was generating revenue from the get go, as it too was a subscription-based model. OneDirect still functions as a separate entity in 2016, with much of the same core functions as when it began.
The pain point that was being solved – complaint redressal – took a new turn when the founders took a look at the way tech was being deployed. In December 2014, (after a $5 Mn Series A investment from Sequoia Capital in July), the platform changed vision and decided to include information as well as complaint/follow-up in their product on a chat on the go basis.
“We handle 3,20,000+ customer inquiries every month over web, and telephone and we’re growing rapidly. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that our customers wanted us to go mobile,” he says.
While much has been written about the Haptik-Akosha controversy (both of which had nothing to do with each other product-wise, but which resulted in an animated blog war regarding said product), the question still remained – why the need to pivot when an existing business model seemed to be working?
‘It’s All About Helping People Through Chat’
“I’d like to break this answer into two parts,” he says. “Part one – we tech entrepreneurs are enthusiastic about tech. New tech is something that excites us above all. When we looked at Facebook M which had also been launched around that time and saw this idea of a chat-based messenger platform that did everything (from making restaurant reservations to booking a cab and more), the obvious leap of logic was ‘let’s do it. We felt that if a company such as Facebook was doing it, it was a validated move.’
And thus, the company pivoted from a web and mobile-based app to a chat-based platform in February 2015. The idea gained traction, so much so that the company decided to focus on the darling sector of 2015 – hyperlocal and SMBs- in order to fulfil more and more consumer needs under one platform.
Which brings us to the second part of the answer. “Let’s take Airtel for instance,” says Ankur.
“Suppose Airtel as a whole gets 2 Cr calls from consumers – these consumers have various issues they want solved. Something as small as my INR 10 recharge didn’t go through, to I need to see what my balance is right now to what are the new schemes available in my area right now. Complaints, as a whole formed a mere 2% of these calls and queries. And we thought to ourselves, why go after just the 2% volume of business when the other 98% is also ripe for the taking?”
Going after an increased volume of business to cater to more needs of the consumers meant that the core reason for Akosha’s existence, the legal redressal forum was left with no place in the new model. The team of eight-nine people were let go quietly.
And a 10-member chat team took its place in March 2015. The new company ‘Helpchat’ (fairly self-explanatory) focussed entirely on using chat as a mode of communication with its users and began scaling. It added more verticals to its existing model and it scaled by adding more and more members to the team, to address the different verticals.
“The vision behind Helpchat was to build an all-in-one app which the user could use for multiple things without having to download so many apps. This is an acute problem in India – most users with Android phones run out of space and therefore most apps see a 80% uninstall rate within a couple months of install. Our vision was to solve this problem,” says Ankur.
There Is No Such Thing As A Perfect PA
“Instead of connecting consumers to businesses regarding just complaints, we decided to connect them to businesses for all interactions: queries, service requests, transactions etc. Since Akosha was strongly identified as a complaint platform, we changed the name to Helpchat to mirror what the new product was about. The thought was that this app would exist over a single window chat interface. We also thought that to build enough training data for our machine learning algorithms to answer queries, we would scale up a manual chat interface,” says Ankur.
In order to achieve this kind of scale, it also moved to Bengaluru, acqui-hired Niffler and onboarded services such as laundry, delivery boys etc. in order to become “The Perfect PA.”
The team went from 10 members to around 700 members (helped in part by the $16 Mn Series B invested by Sequoia Capital) working on the premises while the company under went yet another churn.
A Perfect PA delegates its work to others and so Helpchat began partnering with startups in niche verticals such as DoorMint, Zomato etc. to fulfil the everyday user needs, just in a different way.
The fag end of 2015 in India saw the startup ecosystem undergo tremendous upheaval in many sectors, including and especially hyperlocal, but Helpchat’s problems did not escape notice.
By October 2015, the company had more than 1,000 members (a number disputed by Ankur) working exclusively on a chat-based platform – answering queries, making reservations, booking tickets, availing coupons and more, the chat model too was scrapped. First, a team of 100 was let go and then the rest of them a year later, along with a quality team that existed solely to monitor the chat team.
When prompted to talk about the massive retrenchment Ankur says, albeit a bit tiredly, “Much has been made of this move but here is what happened. It was our call centre people from Akosha who all got absorbed into the new product team. Their primary job was to communicate via chat. Online. In theory, it was a beautiful idea. But, you have to understand.
“These are 22-year-olds in a salary bracket of INR 12K-INR 14K and their basic knowledge of grammar and English is not solid. We could train them to talk a certain way in the call centre but when it came to chatting – typing, their education hampered training leading to a bad customer experience. For a product that was created to fulfil customer needs, this was unacceptable.”
To team Helpchat it was patently clear – chat is slower than simply tapping, it’s uni-directional like an IVR system and it has poor discovery (i.e. Indian users don’t know what to type when they see a blank screen.
From Chat To No-Chat AKA Tapzo
“We have been working on Tapzo for the last one year,” shares Ankur animatedly. “The decision to shut down the chat model was because chat is a beautiful use case globally, but in India, everything works differently. The amount of information retained from a single screen is mind-boggling and we don’t even know it.”
He explains the idea behind ‘TAP’zo this way – while chatting more taps are used to type out a question, “I want to order food” for instance. And the whole process takes quite a bit of time to get sorted, an average time of 30 minutes per transaction.
Says Ankur, “With Tapzo, it’s all about the number of taps to get from point A to point B – from need to fulfilment. We focussed only on the user experience (it should be fast and reliable), only work with APIs of other apps for the fulfilment, optimise our app so that it helps the user save phone space, data, and time.”
Tapzo promises to do all this and more via the different categories available on the app – an “all-in-one,” as reiterated by Ankur. According to an official statement, it is an app for high-frequency use cases. This could be anything from finding best offers, deals & coupons, booking cabs/taxis & autos, ordering food, recharging prepaid mobile & DTH, paying postpaid mobile bills, reading news, following & sharing trending, funny & viral stories, checking live cricket scores and daily horoscope!
The abovementioned APIs have been integrated on the respective platforms of its branding partners and make available all the old Helpchat use cases – answering queries, providing services, availing transactions and more.
For instance, with Tapzo Cabs, it is reportedly easy to book a cab in three taps using the integrated services of Ola, Uber, MegaTaxi, and SavaariRental while recharges and bill payments can be done via Bill Desk.
“We have eliminated the chat element but the services provided remain the same, hence the rebranding,” says Ankur. “We have created special points of contact between the Tapzo team and our various partners to address any queries or complaints that is raised by a user. And if the same cannot be solved internally by us, we direct them to our partner website who will do the needful for them.”
Account information and migration too, has been taken care of within the new API system – whichever brands have already partnered with Helpchat and use their payment gateway, the information is automatically procured in-app (such as payment information/cab preference in the case of Tapzo Cabs or payment information and restaurant preference in the case of Swiggy, Freshmenu in the food category), to provide an immersive experience to the consumer.
“Every API on Tapzo works differently of course, and there are still kinks that are being worked out but our goal is to be able to answer the most queries by the app inside the app and immediately,” says Ankur.
The goal is an ambitious one and the app has seemingly shown traction.
“I think after facing the chat challenge last year, we were lucky that we changed course quickly before spending too much capital. We have grown 13X on transactions since January 2016 with our non-chat approach. Today, close to 1,40,00 users use our app daily and we do close to 55,000 transactions a day with an annual run rate (ARR) of INR 210 crores in GMV/bookings. And we plan on growing 2X in the next six months.”
The numbers speak for themselves, but the question now remains – names have staying power and take a long time to register in people’s memories. Changing it over and over again could be construed as a move to confuse an already desensitised audience of 350 Mn smartphone users that is struggling with a move towards a cashless digital economy and would probably welcome an app that claims to do it all.
But Ankur has the answer down pat for this one: “The name (Helpchat) was confusing for them since the product did not have chat functionality anymore and we did not want to confuse our next 50 Mn users just because our current name was well known to around 2 Mn-3 Mn users.”
As a startup, it is imperative to keep in mind that one is ‘starting up.’ This automatically guarantees that there will be bumps along the road, the product will change shape, teams will come and go and the vision one started with is not the finalised product that goes out to a paying customer. This is the very nature of starting a business.
Tapzo too has undergone its fair share of iterations, a major pivot, a name change (always risky) and now another rebranding amidst raising millions of dollars (it raised a Series C in September 2016), courted controversy and retrenchment while achieving some kind of PMF and the team seems unapologetic as it goes about trying to get back to its vision of building a product that all of India could use.
Will the name change be remembered as the comeback story of a scrappy company trying to find its footing, will the new Tapzo succeed after incorporating seven years of learnings into one big basket or will we be seeing another rebranding, a new pivot or a product in the months to come – well, that remains to be seen.
What can be concluded, is concluded best by Sunny Sharma, ex-VP of Enterprise Solutions at Akosha and Helpchat,
“If one wants to survive in a startup, they should be comfortable with lots of ups and downs. To succeed, one must keep adapting to the new realities of the market, I also ended up honing my team management and people development skills during my stint there. Personally, I love challenges, ambiguity and changes.”
And if there is ever a journey that has encompassed challenges, ambiguity, and changes it is Tapzo – and it still looks to have a fair way to go.