At any point of time, Kavin Bharti Mittal has two phones with him: One will always be the latest iPhone and, currently, the other is the far more economical $120 MotoE. The latter is his primary instrument to monitor the running of his messaging app, Hike Messenger.
Make no mistake: Hike is not just an app for Mittal. It is his carefully crafted means to a much-desired end: To bring the internet and its benefits within reach of thousands of Indians who are yet to discover the wonders of the World Wide Web. It is with this motive that Hike was launched, on December 12, 2012, as a separate entity from his father Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises. It was, however, initially funded by Bharti SoftBank to the tune of $7 million in April 2013 and $14 million announced in March 2014. Later in August 2014, Tiger Global made an investment of $65 million.
The signs were positive from early on, as the rise in subscriber base indicates. By February 2013, for instance, Hike had grown 10 times week-on-week and breached the 5 million-user milestone in April 2013. As of this January, it has more than 100 million users exchanging over 40 billion messages per month. “We believe that messaging will do for mobile what the browser did for the desktop, but will do it in a way that will be 100 times better,” says Mittal (28), sitting in his swanky new office in Aerocity, Delhi.
Investors seem to agree with his vision. This January, the company announced that a clutch of Silicon-based tech veterans have invested in the app and will also be advisors. One of them, Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO, Automattic Inc, and co-founder, WordPress, says by email: “As an online social media entrepreneur myself, I have keenly observed India. I believe in Hike Messenger’s vision, and it’s well positioned for aggressive growth in the country.”
Now, while Hike is the baby Mittal has chosen to nurture, it isn’t his first-born. That was AppSpark, an app company he set up in 2008 while still in his final year at Imperial College, London; he was just 20 then.
In 2009, the company launched Movies Now, a movie-ticketing app on the iPhone (with an iPad variant called Movies Now HD), in collaboration with movietickets.com. Apple soon recognised Movies Now as ‘One of the 10 Essential Movie Goer Apps’ for the iPhone due to its attention to user experience and design.
But Mittal soon got bored of movie and food apps. He wanted to do more. He wound up AppSpark and headed home in early 2011. Once back, he didn’t waste much time in pursuing his dream of bridging the gap between much of India and the internet. Enter Hike.
Today, the app is without doubt his only focus. Even while talking to us, Mittal seldom digresses. There is no time to chitchat about hobbies and life after work. His plans, simply put, are ambitious.
He is expanding the ambit of the app that, to begin with, targeted the below-25 age group, with options of private chats and quirky, localised stickers. Cut to today and, as Mittal puts it, “I recently met a 13-year-old Hiker and a 50-year-old Hiker.”
He also wants to position Hike as a one-stop-shop for every need: For messaging and calling, to use and share discount coupons with friends, to get cricket scores, for daily quotes, facts and humour, to stay updated on news about the latest Hike features and, in future, help organise the user’s daily life with the help of an executive assistant. Something like iPhone’s Siri, but Mittal calls her ‘Natasha’. “We tried both male and female versions; the latter was more popular,” he says. This is the result of Hike’s efforts to improve artificial intelligence, already at work on the messaging app along the lines of Google Now.
Users who have basic smartphones with limited memory often find it difficult to accommodate several apps as well as the constant updates. “We believe the app model is completely broken; it will not scale. It has too much overhead,” says Mittal. He, therefore, plans to build on the app through microsites. Hike already has a partnership with Cricbuzz for cricket scores and is open to talking to taxi service apps like Ola and Uber. Even ecommerce on its platform is an option. “Hike is a startup of startups. Over time it should become an open platform. Anyone should be able to build on Hike,” says Mittal.
When asked if he hopes to surpass Whatsapp as the instant messaging app of choice, Mittal dismisses the notion of even being in competition with Jan Koum’s creation.
Hike is more of a lifestyle application, he points out. From facilitating offline chats to sending free SMS to non-Hike numbers, Mittal is trying to attract users that may or may not be on Whatsapp. “If you want to send simple texts and photos, go to Whatsapp. You’re better off there,” he says. “But if you want to play around the internet and want a different world that’s simpler and easier to consume, that understands you intimately, makes your life better and faster, and gives you more utility, you come to Hike.”
For that reason, Mittal wants to keep his team compact, creative and efficient—he has around 240 employees across Delhi and Bengaluru.