By Shrinath V

The British economist Joan Robinson once remarked, “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”

Those of us who live in India know that this statement, with its contradiction, is correct. The right answer for a lot of questions is yes…and no, it depends on whom you are talking about. But then, it’s difficult building generalizations for more than a billion people.

The World Bank notes that only about 10% of the Indian population was online in 2011. This grew to over 34% in 2017, thanks to increase in mobile users, cheaper data plans and high growth of users in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. The number of users in estimated at about 458 million in 2019.

But numbers alone do not tell the story. Firms are now waking up to the Next Billion Users (NBU) – a classification given to the segment of users getting online for the first time across the world. A large proportion of the NBU will be in India, which brings in fresh opportunities for startups working for the Indian market.

These users differ significantly from the earlier ones in their constraints, their context of usage and their behaviors. For instance, many of these users have phones with limited onboard memory and phones that run older versions of Android. Users often use phones with cracked screens that they cannot afford to fix. Many are comfortable using their local language as an interface, and voice has emerged as a powerful tool to get things done. While many have data plans, they also love sharing a lot of content using ‘offline’ means by using apps like ShareIt.

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Startups are waking up to the immense potential of the Next Billion Users. Consumer apps like ShareChat have built a huge user base in India thanks to understanding the context and desires of this segment. There are others who are working on business opportunities like improving agricultural yields, helping job seekers from smaller towns connect to opportunities in the formal sector, using machine learning to sort varieties of grain at mandis, and more.

As more people get online, we will see other opportunities emerge in building, enhancing or simplifying services for them. But cracking these opportunities requires the ability to ideate on products and businesses based on deep understanding of user needs, constraints and their usage context.

Without this, it’s easy to get biased on what users want. We forget that our own usage behaviors have been shaped by years of using online services. The online world, while exciting, can also be daunting for new users. Building wonderfully engineered products may not automatically bring users, as they may find the product too complicated, not working well on their phones, or just not appealing.

A good start for tapping opportunities is to focus on the users’ context. Understanding how to market and sell the product is as important as building the right product. Today, there are accelerators who focus specifically on mentoring startups who build for Next Billion Users in India. They often bring together expert mentors to help them ideate, plan and validate assumptions around their products. In a recent accelerator where I was a mentor, I worked with a startup that was helping record the health metrics of expecting mothers. Based on their user understanding, they had designed their hardware in the shape of a necklace to be worn by the lady. They built the battery in this to last for over nine months, so the user did not have to charge this. The device would automatically wake when a health worker with a tablet was in the vicinity and share vital information about the expecting mother to an app. This approach worked much better than having the wearable in the shape of a watch that users were not accustomed to. Having inbuilt batteries to last through the term meant that expecting mothers who did not have access to regular electricity could also use the device. And, automatic transfer of data to the health worker’s app directly meant that there was no effort on the part of the expecting mother or health worker, data captured was reliable, and importantly, there was an automatic record of the number of expecting mothers that the health worker visited. Factoring in these key constraints of users was critical in getting their product-market fit.

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It’s also important for startups to immerse themselves in their prospective customers’ context to understand them better, without trying to sell the product. Large organizations often have user researchers on their teams and encourage product managers to spend time soaking in users’ context while designing their products. This is often a critical first step to building something valuable for users.

As the Next Billion Users segment grows, we will see new startups emerge solving specific challenges for them. After all, we will rarely witness another case where so many users will come online so quickly. If you’re considering starting up, this is an opportunity you should not miss.

The writer is a product management consultant who consults with startups and large firms on building products and businesses. He is a mentor with Google’s Launchpad Accelerator & Solve for India programs, and has worked with startups across the world on refining their product & marketing strategy.





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