“So why you not as famous as Mark Zuckerburg?” I ask Beerud Sheth, tongue firmly in cheek. Pat comes the reply: “Because in India, the approach is firangi, not tirangi.”
Sheth happens to be the co-founder and CEO of Webaroo, which owns SMSGupShup.com, and if he is to be compared with Zuckerburg, the founder of Internet social networking phenomenon Facebook, it is in order. Sheth is looking for a fortune at the bottom of the social networking pyramid. The IIT, Mumbai and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated whizkid is moaning about the fact that there is so much media hype over Facebook and microblogging (tweeting) site Twitter in India because it is “firangi” while its own (tricolour) site SMSGupShup.com is ignored despite its roaring success.
There has been much talk of a divide between the affluent India and the laggard Bharat. SMSGupShup is to the vast hinterland of Bharat what Facebook is to savvy global youngsters and Orkut to millions of others. By using a short number code (567678) and sending an SMS, you can form communities or join them, and exchange messages, fight for causes, build brands or share ideas on SMS GupShup. For those unconnected to the Net, the simple SMS community is akin to a money order used by an illiterate villager who has no bank account or credit card.
Sheth throws some convincing numbers. India has 400 million mobile connections, 40 million Web users and 4 million broadband connections. While there are five mobile connections for every Net connection globally, in India, the figure is 10. For crores of Indians, SMS can and does do what the Web does for the better off.
SMSGupshup has 22 million users in India, compared with 4 million for Facebook, 12 million for Orkut and 1 million for Twitter, Sheth says. (The numbers change fast, though).
“This is the biggest untold story,” he adds.
What fascinates me is that there is much more utility for public services and rare tribes in SMSGupshup which also offers its website as an interface to create SMS communities. The Mumbai municipal corporation uses it to reach citizens. UTI Mutual Fund has nearly 500,000 investor-members who get SMS alerts. Little-known Hmar tribe in the Northeast has more than 16,000 members using Roman script text messages on GupShup to talk to each other. Rajasthan Royals uses it to build fan following for its cricket team.
Webaroo, whose financiers include Rakesh Mathur, the founder CEO of Junglee sold to Amazon.com, makes money from ads attached to messages, revenue sharing with mobile carriers who offer the number code service, and services like forming communities for corporate clients.
Whether Sheth gets a Zuckerburg-like halo is an open matter, there is little doubt that his convergence company is bridging the difference between the Tweets and the Tweet-nots.