X’s Indian challenger ‘Koo’ pulls the plug on ops as funds dry up, partnership talks fail

on Jul 3, 2024
  • At its peak, Koo had 60 million downloads and 10 million users, including 9,000 celebrities and VIPs.
  • We were months away from beating Twitter in India in 2022 and could have, with capital behind us: Koo founder.
  • Koo was promoted by several Indian government officials in 2021 to keep Twitter in check.

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Indian multilingual microblogging site ‘Koo’ has announced on Wednesday that it will discontinue operations as ongoing partnership talks have failed to materialize amid drying up of funds. 

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Characterised by a small yellow bird, Koo was started in 2020 by serial entrepreneurs Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka as an Indian answer to Twitter (now X) and sought to distinguish itself from the social media giant by offering users the freedom to post in their native languages like Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati etc. 

Launched amid fanfare, promoted by Indian govt officials to keep Twitter in check

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At its peak, Koo had 60 million downloads and 10 million users, including 9,000 celebrities and VIPs.

Several Indian government ministers too had joined the app early on in an indirect promotion of it, even as PM Narendra Modi highlighted it as an ‘Aatmanirbhar app (Indian self-made app)’ as the app fulfilled the aims of Modi’s ‘Aatmanirbhar India’ campaign.

The campaign aimed at making the country self-reliant in the production of world-class goods and services with a larger aim to reduce imports and increase exports.

In 2021, when then Jack Dorsey-led Twitter emerged to be in a face-off with the Indian government over the latter’s directives to take down over 1,100 accounts and posts which the government claimed was spreading misinformation about the then ongoing farmer protests in the country, many ministers and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders announced they had joined Koo.

This was seen as an indirect snub to the US social media giant to toe the line or risk loss of users in one of its largest markets.

Twitter had 17.5 million users in India back then. 

Global ambitions

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Though it had started to provide Indian users with a platform where they could express in their native languages, Koo’s vision was not restricted to India as it wanted to develop a global product which could be an alternative to Twitter.

With 50 million app downloads by 2022, it had already emerged as the second largest microblogging site in the world after Twitter.

The same year, Koo had launched in Brazil where it made the platform available in 11 native languages, including Portuguese.

Within 48 hours of its launch there, the app had 1 million user downloads.

Further, the founders were also preparing to foray into the US, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Phillipiness, Middle East and African markets.

What went wrong?

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In a post on LinkedIn on Wednesday, Bidawatka said they will be discontinuing service to the public as partnership talks with multiple larger internet companies, conglomerates and media houses have fallen through.

Most of them did not want to deal with user generated content and the “wild nature” of a social media company and the founders had to take the decision considering the high costs of running a social media app, he said.

“We built a globally scalable product in a fraction of the time that X/Twitter did, with superior systems, algorithms and strong stakeholder-first philoshophies. Koo used to have a 10% like ratio, almost 7-10x the ratio Twitter had- making Koo a more favourable platform for creators…we were just months away from beating Twitter in India in 2022 and could have doubled down on that short term goal with capital behind us.”

“A prolonged funding winter which hit us at our peak hurt our plans at the time and we had to tone down our growth trajectory. Social media is probably one of the toughest companies to build even with all resources available as you need to grow users to a significant scale before one thinks of revenue. We needed 5 to 6 years of aggressive, long term and patient capital to make this dream a reality. 

“Unfortunately for us, the mood of the market and the funding winter got the better of us.” 

Growth of vernacular news and content market in India

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The social media market in India is vibrant and rapidly growing, driven by increasing internet penetration, the proliferation of smartphones, and a young, tech-savvy population.

According to projections, there will be over 600 million social media users in India by 2024.

Separately, the vernacular news and content segment which Koo catered too, is also on the rise with consumer preference towards local language. There are over 22 official languages spoken in India and even more regional dialects.

According to Ken Research, the Indian vernacular news and content market grew by 60% between FY17 and FY22, and is projected to grow by 76% between FY22 and FY27.

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