PUNE, India — U.S.-based social network startup Clubhouse recently made a splash when people like Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk dropped into its chat rooms to hang out with users.
The spotlight on the 11-month-old, invite-only, audio app on iOS, has spilled on to Indian social media network “Leher,” which is having its moment in the sun.
Leher is an audio-video, mobile-only app co-founded by Vikas Malpani in 2018, with the idea of creating a new social network centered around conversations and discussions. This shifts away from text-based social media like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and video-based apps like Snapchat and Instagram.
Leher is on both Android and iOS and doesn’t need an invitation to log in. Once inside, users can choose to participate in topics ranging from cryptocurrencies in India to the morality and legality of cannabis.
“Given that India has leapfrogged to the mobile bandwagon directly, instead of going to desktop or broadband, I believe that the next big thing in social media apps will be mobile,” Malpani, who also co-founded real estate portal Commonfloor, told Zenger News.
“And given that we should be eyeing 5G by 2020, it will be beyond text; with text, you can do very little.”
In 2018, the first version of Leher, which means wave in Hindi, started as a “video Quora.” Users could record videos and participate in trending topics. The beta phase of the app lasted about nine months and had over 10,000 users, Malpani said.
In 2020, the app evolved to have live audio-video discussions, coinciding with the nationwide Covid-induced lockdown in the country.
“But there was a problem in the way people perceived it; everyone compared it to a webinar or a talk show, so the growth was very linear,” said Malpani.
“Both public and private clubs have audio-video, but in public clubs people were predominantly using video to chat. In the private rooms, we decided to lead with an audio-first approach.”
“Work-, rather, life-from-home has increased everyone’s face time and Leher complements this new reality,” Faisal Kawoosa, founder at TechARC, said.
Now, Leher has both public clubs and invite-only private ones. Users need to send a request to create private clubs before inviting members.
Leher received seed funding from Orios Venture Partners in 2018, and in 2020 raised funds from Google for Startups, according to business information platform Crunchbase.
Malpani declined to disclose the size of the funding rounds.
Leher’s popularity rose in the last six months, and currently has over 1,00,000 downloads on Android’s Google Play Store. With over 1,50,000 users, the app’s daily active users are doubling week on week, Malpani said.
Users are spending anywhere between 15 minutes to 2 hours on the app every day with an average session lasting around 100-110 minutes, he said.
Leher’s popularity comes at a time when Made-in-India apps are gaining prominence among users looking for alternatives to global versions.
For instance, social media network Koo was founded in 2020 as an alternative to Twitter, which got into trouble with the Indian government. Twitter was asked to take down around 1,178 accounts that were allegedly spreading misinformation about the farmers’ protests in India.
Short-form video platform TikTok’s ban led to the creation of Mitron, while Sandes is the government’s answer to Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp.
Malpani said he doesn’t want users to choose Leher because it’s Indian, but because it’s the best product out there. But he acknowledged that the global comparison with Clubhouse has made it easier for people to understand the app.
“In the pre-Clubhouse era, when I was trying to explain the app, people didn’t understand why they would leave Zoom and come for conversations. We were pitching something that was Zoom plus social network, but people just couldn’t understand. However, now life is much easier,” he said.
And where social media networks are, issues surrounding data protection aren’t far behind.
Last week, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory said Clubhouse’s audio files might be exposed to servers in China. Clubhouse said it would engage an external data security firm to strengthen data protection.
Ethical hacker Elliott Alderson tweeted on Feb. 11 that Koo exposes users’ data, including marital status, gender, and date of birth. On Feb. 18, Alderson tweeted saying “a new Indian app is in town, you know what that means,” without disclosing the name of the app.
Leher wants a simple app experience to enable users to log on daily. While monetization is still at least 2-3 years away, Malpani said, the company is conducting some experiments around it.
“There could be a creator-consumer model, or a subscription system, or an event dynamic, there are many possibilities. There could also be a brand collaboration dynamic,” he said.
“Advertising about the products and explaining the benefits of purchase to the local audience through the audio-visual platform makes it easier for the startups to generate monetization,” Karan Chechi, Research Director at TechSci research, told Zenger News.
“Revenue can also be generated by giving online consultations through these mobile applications and by streaming or recording entertainment or speech videos, which will lead to more audiences in the future for a long-term earning plan.”
Social networking giant Facebook is building an audio-only chat product to compete with Clubhouse, while Twitter is amping up testing for Spaces, its audio-only chat rooms, according to media reports.
Twitter began testing a voice messaging feature in its direct messages in India from Feb. 17, available to both Android and iOS users. This will be rolled out in phases.
“In the next three months, you will see at least a few dozen apps like this. That’s a part and parcel of the business. We want people to go on Leher for their daily discussion and conversations,” Malpani said.
(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Amrita Das)