TikTok's Indian clones will need lots of luck and money to recreate magic of the original

Now that the spigot of Chinese money has been impeded by a new law, the challenge will be even greater.

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Image: TikTok

When Chinese company Bytedance's app, TikTok, got booted out of India after a brutal border clash that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, India experienced a curious mixture of emotions -- rage against China as well as a feeling of profound loss.

TikTok was a phenomenon unlike any other here, making stars out of everyday Indians from villages and small towns who had never been discovered and never would have if not for the 15-second medium. For the first time, Indians from all walks of life could connect and entertain one another, even earning a tidy sum while doing so. The ban on TikTok abruptly ended all of that.

It hasn't taken long for homemade contenders to rush into that large, vacant space left by TikTok, all with the hopes of taking the Chinese app's throne. Bolo Indya, Mitron, Chingari, Roposo, and a few others have turned on their turbines to take advantage of this unique opportunity to cater to this almost insatiable need for authentic entertainment.

Read more: India may have banned TikTok but the app's users have democratised stardom forever

Of these, Mitron has received a hefty share of attention: First for being banned from the Google Play Store for violating its spam and minimum functionality policy and then for what it says is the enormous daily traffic it experiences, which it claimed has shot up by eleven times since the ban. Mitron also said that it has gained upwards of 17 million registered downloads in just two months of being on the Play Store.

Sharechat, which describes itself as India's largest regional social media app with over 150 million registered users and 60 million monthly active users across 15 Indian languages, declared that its short video app Moj had logged over 15 million downloads in just a few days since the ban. Another app, Chingari, says it has gained over 25 million downloads and close to 3 million daily active users.

By contrast, TikTok in India was downloaded around 660 million times

Some apps have also begun to experiment with new models to expand reach. Chingari, for instance, is offering to pay music composers on its platform based on how popular their songs get. The traffic surges have sent these companies into a tizzy of hiring developers, designers, brand managers, and product managers.

But here's the rub. Transforming into a TikTok is going to involve a combination of things that almost no-one has on tap. Firstly, an app wants to reach a certain scale, and that scale can only be achieved with a gigantic amount of capital. Guess which place has seemingly unending amounts of capital? If you guessed China, you're right.

China has already invested hundreds of billions of dollars into Indian companies, but even if you ignore the crushing irony of trying to raise money from China for an Indian TikTok clone, a new law recently passed by the Modi government requires special government approval if cash originates from a company situated in a country that shares a land border with India -- in other words, China. 

Anand Lunia, founding partner at India Quotient, which has invested in ShareChat and Roposo said in an Economic Times report that "most apps seeing downloads today will lose 90% of the people within a month."

Read more: Despite brutal border clash between India and China, tech bonds will be very hard to break

What capital gets you is the millions of dollars needed for marketing and customer and creator acquisition. If you happen to get all of that right, you still have to ensure that your platform can provide an enjoyable user experience so people keep coming back. Just to provide an off-the-cuff example of an Indian app that has been successful, food app Zomato has received $840 million as of January 2020 over roughly seven years.

Of course, none of this would even be remotely possible without solid engineering chops that are able to build a top notch recommendation and personalisation engine. This requires at least $50-$100 million, according to prominent VCs in India who have spent significant time in Silicon Valley as entrepreneurs and investors.

There's a strange, ironic, little tale about engineering and product development chops that is part of this story. It turns out that a security researcher unearthed the true origin of TikTok aspirant Mitron's code. It came from archenemy Pakistan, via a platform across the border dubbed TicTic that was sold to the CEO of the Indian short-video app for a paltry $34.

Now everyone buys code from places like CodeCanyon and Github for a quick fix, but when someone is using it on a long-term basis, it is a bright, red flag, indicating an inability to build a solid feature.

"Our IT industry historically has never been an end-to-end product development industry, it's been an IT services industry," said Jayanth Kolla, founder of Convergence Catalyst, a global research and advisory firm in Mint. "The end-to-end product thinking itself has been missing in India for the longest time, especially software product development, until recently," he added.

A helpful warning by Kolla that will serve all TikTok clones well: Each line of code is examined painstakingly for origins and errors when a startup is fundraising and off-the-shelf code could be an instant deal breaker.

Meanwhile, millions of former TikTok stars are fleeing to YouTube and Instagram -- which has come out with its own clone called Reels. At the same time, these stars also secretly hoping and waiting for TikTok's return, which may well happen if things cool down considerably between India and China since there's too much money at stake.

If this ever happens, most of these new players will be toast. Even if that doesn't happen, don't be surprised if many of the players on this list become footnotes in history because of the onerous amounts of money and hard-to-find talent required to make one of these apps.

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