Hiking it up at the Aerocity

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on March 13, 2018

Office space, a great setting can inspire great work



Kavin Mittal

Can a young Indian startup late to the chat app party challenge the might of Facebook’s Whatsapp?

“Do take a seat,” urges Kavin Bharti Mittal, the boyish, slim founder of Hike Messenger, directing you to try out an elegant beige chair with a cushioned headrest. Over the next half hour as the young entrepreneur takes you through a tour of his futuristic new office at Delhi’s Aerocity, he makes you test at least a dozen seats, from recliners to sofas to poufs to benches, watching with anxious interest. Comfortable chairs are clearly an obsession with Mittal, and the donut-shaped 60,000 sq ft office brimming with energy has them in all sizes, shapes and colours.

Mittal is also obsessed with building a messaging network that will be relevant to the Indian market. Just like many of the walls on his new office have seen many iterations before they pleased the detail-conscious 27-year old, Hike’s new features too go through relentless reboots, though one wishes the cartoons and stickers on the app were as aesthetically pleasing as the office.

It is an eclectic design with a meditation room, a heavy-duty gym, chill-out zones and funky meeting rooms including a Lord of the Rings-inspired room with a ceiling and wall created with corks. From writable walls where stickers and cartoons can be doodled if an idea strikes, a Telepresence robot that facilitates employees to log into office remotely, food on tap and even a nap room – all the trappings are there to empower his team to churn out new features for the app.

“Is this your Menlo Park?” you ask. Mittal laughs and confesses he has never been to the Facebook headquarters though he interned at Google and visited the Dropbox and Quora offices. “Definitely I have been influenced by their collaborative design,” he says.

Ambitious much?

Isn’t it a bit too ambitious to be attempting to take on Whatsapp which is now almost a default option for mobile phone users? Mittal rattles off the figures: In just 38 months, Hike has attracted 100 million users. Forty billion messages are exchanged. “It is already the fifth largest messaging service globally,” he says.

Analyst Kashyap Kompella, research director with The Real Story, says Hike’s 100 million users may give it critical mass but it is still way behind market leader Whatsapp (1 billion users). “The key question here is whether this is a winner-take-all market or there is space for multiple players,” says Kompella. Smartphone penetration in India is below 200 million.

“I believe there is space for two players in every market,” says Mittal, confident he is surging ahead of other apps in the fray such as Facebook Messenger, Line and WeChat in India at least. While Whatsapp is still purely focused on messaging, Mittal is loading on the features on his app. News, cartoons, stickers, a virtual assistant called Natasha, matchmaking – Hike has them all and is unveiling more by the day. “We have a lot of ideas, especially around voice,” says Mittal, adding that he sees messaging as an Operating System almost.

Kompella agrees that chat apps can be the gateway to doing many things. He says that as mobile wallets and payments take off in India, there is opportunity to leverage chat applications for commerce and transactions.

But the primary function of a messenger service is still connecting people to people and Mittal’s hierarchy-less office where everyone including the boss sits together in a wide open hall reflects that. His business also hinges on inspiring a lot of creativity in his 230-strong team – most of whom are product designers. There are silent rooms for focused work, forest-inspired rooms with artificial grass, even a room called Boom that serves as a reminder of setbacks. “We had a server collapse in March 2013,” explains Mittal.

Born with the proverbial silver spoon, Mittal does not lack capital or mentors at this stage. Hike was seeded by Bharti SoftBank, a joint venture between dad Sunil Mittal’s firm and the Japanese telecom giant, which gave two tranches of capital ($7 million and $14 million). Later Tiger Global gave $65 million. Adam D’Angelo, founder and CEO, Quora, Aditya Agarwal, Vice-President - Engineering, Dropbox, Ruchi Sanghvi, Vice-President, Dropbox, and Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of Wordpress invested.

But isn’t he overspending on this lavish office just three years into the journey?Mittal anticipates his team will grow to 500 and not more. “I would rather spend on my people and culture,” shoots back Mittal.

Localise and be relevant

The central plank on which Mittal is fighting this battle, he says, is in delivering a product that is local and relevant. “I am here to solve problems,” declares Mittal, pointing out that the very reason he entered the messenger service arena was because he saw most people in India use a low-end phone. Right now the reality of the Indian market is that content discovery on a phone is broken as most people use basic smartphones. Also, data is expensive. “Can I deliver a rich experience on a low-end device?”

This is why Hike has rolled out features such as offline chat mode. Realising that it does not have Whatsapp’s numbers, it offers its users free SMS facility to non-Hike numbers. To capture new users, it has developed a multi-lingual interface as well as a keyboard.

“India-specific features make sense and can help increase the user base,” says Kompella. “If apps such as Hike are to thrive, their best bet is to attract users who are not on WhatsApp, instead of competing head-on. It also opens up a potential monetisation opportunity – if they are able to deliver new audiences to marketers.”

Interestingly, Mittal shrugs off the monetisation question. “The hard part is how to keep building your business and take it to scale,” he says.

Mittal is now consolidating his leadership team with experienced people. The latest recruit is Silicon Valley veteran Rajesh Rudraradhya, who has joined as Vice-President and Head of Engineering. Rudraradhya joins Hike from Motorola where he was leading wearables and Internet of Things.

But the monetisation issue worries analysts like Kompella. “Whatsapp maintains a “no-ads” approach and recently even dropped plans to charge subscribers. It can afford to do so. Hike will have to find ways to start making money – it is tricky to find monetisation models that don’t turn off the users.”

Mittal might like to play down his connection with his dad’s mighty telecom network, and stress he is very much doing his own thing. But there is no denying the silent might of Airtel behind him that does give him an advantage.

But then again, as Kompella points out, there is a wildcard in the form of Reliance Jio Chat. Once Reliance 4G services are fully launched, will it catch up and take market share away from Hike?

Published on February 18, 2016

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