Innovating for Bharat: How to build products for the grassroots of the country
We are delighted to bring you an illuminating conversation that unfolded during the CODE Conference, India’s Largest Digital Convention held on 10th and 11th June 2023 in the vibrant city of New Delhi. This conversation, hosted by Priyanka from Expand My Business, featured none other than Shobhit Banga, the Co-founder of Josh Talks, a pioneering platform that has become a beacon of inspiration across the length and breadth of India.
In this compelling discussion, Shobhit Banga shared his profound insights on the topic “Innovating for Bharat: How to Build Products for the Grassroots of the Country.” His perspective holds immense weight, especially considering the monumental achievements of Josh Talks. As one of India’s most influential platforms, Josh Talks has reached millions, if not more, of individuals residing in the heart of India, the grassroots. The platform stands as a testament to the power of authentic storytelling, education, and empowerment, touching lives and fostering change in the remotest corners of the nation.
The significance of Shobhit Banga discussing the importance of building products for the grassroots becomes even more profound when you consider the impactful initiatives undertaken by Josh Talks. With a far-reaching presence in the grassroots of India, Josh Talks has become a lifeline for those seeking knowledge, motivation, and opportunities. By understanding the pulse of Bharat, the platform has successfully bridged gaps, empowered individuals, and transformed aspirations into achievements.
In this dialogue, Shobhit Banga not only shared the story behind Josh Talks but also delved into the intricacies of building products that cater to the diverse needs of Bharat. His wisdom, derived from hands-on experiences, sheds light on the essence of localization, emotional connection, and the paramount importance of trust in product development and marketing
This transcript encapsulates the essence of their profound conversation, offering a unique window into the visionary strategies that have propelled Josh Talks into the hearts and minds of millions. Join us as we explore the journey of Josh Talks and the invaluable lessons shared by Shobhit Banga, a trailblazer in the realm of grassroots innovation, making a difference where it truly matters.
conversation B/W Priyanka & Shobhit
Innovating for India, how to build products for the grassroots of the country. What is your take on this topic, and what does innovating for India mean to you?
Sure. Initially, we started Josh Talks for a very English-speaking audience. This was because I myself studied in an English-medium school, and at that time, there was no YouTube penetration in the grassroots of the country yet. Josh Talks, that was not the original goal, and the original goal was to actually go to the grassroots. In 2016, in 2017, when Jio actually happened and YouTube penetration increased, we started to release these talks online. Now, what ended up happening is that a lot of these talks were in vernacular languages: Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and they started to do incredibly well online. Actually, they were talking to me about that. But nobody wants to watch a 30-minute lecture on a stage, that too, on YouTube. But a few years in, after 2016, ’17, and I think we do, I think five crore unique people watch Josh Talks every single month now, so something worked. But coming back to your question, which was innovation for Bharat, apart from the core product, Josh Talks, we also built an English-speaking app at Josh. I think my take on Innovation for Bharat is that most of us who build companies come from a type of society in India that is not the grassroots.
What ends up happening is that because we don’t truly understand the grassroots, we are not able to build for them. I’ll give an example. Just like for this product that we build, which is an English-speaking app market, there are tens of English-speaking apps, but none of them are able to actually fundamentally solve the problem of speaking in English fluently. When we launched the app, we didn’t just want to build another product. Here we go. We’re teaching English. Everybody just leaves. I actually shifted to a slum in Gurgaon. Any of us live in Gurgaon? Have you heard of Chakkarpur? If you ask any of your maids where they live, it’ll probably be Wazirabad or Chakkarpur. I actually went and I shifted to their homes. I lived in a slum for over three months, me and a few members of our team, and we literally built a home there and we understood what people are like, what their lives are like, what makes them tick and work. We really understood, if we have to solve a problem for that security guard or for the tour guide driver, what do we exactly need to build? How do we build something that fits into their life perfectly?
It was really, really interesting that we did figure it out. Today, the Josh Talks English-speaking app is India’s number one English-speaking app. People might not know it, but that’s a second product of Josh that actually works. Innovating for Bharat, for me, means let’s go understand Bharat. How do we expect to build for somebody that we don’t understand at all? That’s what I think is the main thing to do.
Yeah, it’s lovely to hear. Interestingly, we have keeping the frame focused on the grassroots of the country. When I hear you say that you spent three months in slums, you experience what they have experienced. I think from your experience now it’s making me wonder, right? When we think of the grassroots of the country, is it the bottom of the pyramid or is it more?
Going by your experience because there’s so much that you’re doing in that space, do you think it’s important to build products specifically for the grassroots of the country? Just this section.
Yeah, there is no way to do it otherwise. I think very few products, especially utility products, can be built for both kinds of audiences. Google Pay works very well for us an audience and also for the absolute grassroots of the country. But if you want to build any non-core utility products, you’ll have to build for that audience. Even our English channel strategy to our Hindi channel strategy is drastically different. I don’t see a way that there is to do without focusing on just one audience.
Sure. When we talk about the grassroots, we can’t help but acknowledge that it covers a wide range of diversity there itself. How do you suggest that entrepreneurs ensure that the product that they build for India are inclusive and accessible to people from diverse backgrounds while we keep their needs in mind?
Yeah. There is a lot of diversity in the grassroots of the country. If you want to build for India, it’s not like that’s just one category of people. I’ll give an example. I went and lived in the villages of Bihar when we were building the English-speaking app apart from that slum. What ended up happening was that I realized this unbelievable thing about villages in Bihar. Generally, they would be this roundabout. This village that I’m talking about is 10 kilometers from the Nepal border. It’s really far off. I meant this village and a few other villages, and this common thing emerged that there is this roundabout and the roundabout leads to three roads. On these three roads, completely three different people live. There’s this one road. Literally thatched roofs. This house generally has one mobile phone or no mobile phones at home. They definitely have no vehicle. Probably one earning member. Second road has this not kachcha ghar, but these homes are… They don’t have the brick homes. They don’t have the paint outside or anything. It’s like they want to vacate. But. Now, this home is very different from the previous home. This home has at least one or two mobile phones.
The demographic of this home is probably the father works as a tempo driver in the city of Kolkata. The child, who is now maybe 24-25, works as a video editor in the city, and together they make about 35,000-40,000 rupees a month that they’re contributing back home. Now, this home is the buyer of a product like Flipkart, not the previous home. This home is also about 30% of that village, this road. Then there is the final road. On this road are proper homes, what we would call a real village house. It’s proper. It’s probably the people who are buying products like the Unacademy. Or these are the people who are actually spending money from the grassroots of the country. If you see any businesses that have really scaled and have a high RPU or an average revenue per user, this is the home that they belong to. Now, these three kinds of home are more or less 30% each. Now, without the understanding of these three demographics within the village, we cannot build a product for them. It’s not like we can just go and build a product for the villages of the country and it will work because the villages are so different.
The brand of the mobile phone in the second home to the third home is totally different. The third home probably has an iPhone or at least an iPhone 8 somebody is using that they have bought secondhand. That’s what I think.
I understand that tech can also tell you how diverse the folks are, the background. I said that means also it also tells you the tools they’re using, the technology they’re using also tells you. It also brings diversity aspect. Can you share some insights on the importance of localization and contextualization when designing and marketing products for India?
Marketing to Bharat is very different. The driver of the purchase decision in Bharat is very emotional. Very interesting, Tata Salt, Deshka Namak, is the driving factor for purchase decisions. Would Deshka Namak really impact our decision of the salt that we buy? I don’t know. Probably we would like to make a more educated decision about the salt that we buy. But in India, the ‘Deshka, Bhart’ narrative is so strong that it really works. Another example of a company that has proven this is Patanjali. Baba Ramdev did a 20 years of show that built deep trust in the grassroots of the country. Today, Patanjali is a force to reckon with because… Is that the best face wash or the best toothpaste? I don’t know. But if you ask, so I went to my friend’s house and I asked his mother, You know, you have to toothpaste? Just to tease her. She’s like. You cannot change the toothpaste that comes to her house now because the decision is completely emotional. We’ve used the same thing at Josh because what we are really going out there and saying is that Josh is trying to become like a bade bhai, to the grassroots of the country, to the youth in the grassroots of the country.
The bade bhaiya figure is somebody you trust. All our marketing, all our communication is completely done like a bade bhaiya. How would a bade bhai speak to you? That’s how we speak to you. We’ve seen that in two products we have launched after Josh Talks now. We have an English-speaking app and we have a UPSC coaching marketplace. We’ve seen in both, our conversion rates are way higher, where actually we do what you would call no marketing. We’ve just positioned ourselves like a bade bhai, where we have the trust of people. Marketing to India, I believe, is a function of trust and emotion and not actually just buying eyeballs or doing what is traditionally marketing.
Yeah, you just stole my thunder because that was my next question. But this response in a way leaves me intrigued. You just talked about Desh Ka Namak and Patanjali, where the relatability is so high with your country. I think that’s what’s driving it. Can you also talk about how people, how entrepreneurs can infuse more trust and credibility in their product?
One is narrative, and the other is living up to the narrative. The way to build a narrative is to first live up to it. We didn’t start off thinking we want to become the country’s. With this English speaking app, there was a user who wrote to me. He said that, ‘Bhaiya, you have brought a ‘kranti’ in my life’. Kranti, kranti means revolution! The reason he said that is that on our English-speaking app, you can practice speaking in English with others. Imagine that you’re in a village in rural Bihar, you are not in a mahoul of English-speaking or a mahal that we have access to, and you want to get out there and conquer something in your life. Now, this app actually gives you a place to go and connect with another user and speak in English with them while learning to become fluent in English. Now, this guy was spending on average six hours a day speaking to other users. My take is that you want to build, you want to have trust in your users. You want your users to trust you. Make sure the products are living up to the narrative, whatever your narrative is.
The products have to be insanely good.
Right. I think it’s the impact. Ultimately, people are saying the relatable, how they relate with the product. There are some great takeaways from this session, Shobhit. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you, audience, for being so lovely with us.
Co-Founder, Shobhit Banga
I was born and raised in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. I was 15 when I dropped out of school to play tennis at the state level. Injuries forced me to give it but a few months later, I joined India’s first professional cycling team. I became the youngest Indian to qualify for the prestigious ‘Paris-Brest-Paris’, held once every four years. As of March’22, our content has garnered over 2 billion lifetime views, averaging 85 million+ monthly views across platforms. Josh Skills has more than 3.2 million downloads with 200,000 paid users.
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