Big Idea

Babble out, Bobble in

This Gurugram-based start-up has found its winning formula in zinging up your old-school smartphone keyboards and making texting fun again

Is ‘hey’ too friendly? Should we stick to ‘hi’ and maybe risk looking a bit stuck up? What about ‘hello’? Is that too eager? These spells of doubt-and-resignation are what Gurugram-based Bobble AI is here to rescue you from. While it started as an app that could animate selfies to create stickers with funky taglines, it has become much more within its four years. Its keyboard-app now helps us use images, stickers and even regional language to express ourselves.

The start-up’s parent company, Talent Unlimited Online Services, was founded by IIT-Delhi batchmates Ankit Prasad and Mohammed Wassem in 2011. From creating a social networking platform for artists to turning selfies into bobble-head stickers, the team tried and tested several ideas before arriving on their flagship product — Bobble Keyboard.

Content is king

In early 2014, the company raised Rs.40 million from 18 angel investors such as Sachin and Binny Bansal, Deep Kalra, Amit Ranjan, along with venture capitalist SAIF Partners. The young entrepreneurs realised how the world was moving towards smartphone dependency and launched Bobble Content, the selfie sticker app, in 2015. Prasad’s team wanted to make chatting more engaging and personalised. After receiving feedback and fixing bugs, the app went viral within a few months with over one million users and SAIF Partners invested another $3 million in September 2015. 

When all was going well, the start-up experienced its first hiccup — Android scrapped the API (application programme interface) that the app was using to distribute its content. The API would detect the app running in the foreground and allow Bobble to show a circular widget on the screen. The widget would, for instance, show on the corner of WhatsApp and users could use Bobble’s stickers without exiting the app. “That widget was a really successful hack for us,” says Prasad. With it gone, Bobble couldn’t provide most of its features anymore.

But instead of letting it get in the way of their business, they started looking for a more sustainable alternative. Thus, Bobble became a smartphone keyboard, much like Microsoft’s SwiftKey or Google’s Indic, but targeting a different group — the local Indian user. WhatsApp was big then and Mukul Singhal, who led the first round of funding when he was with SAIF Partners, saw that there was a need for a service “more localised, more Indian and more aspirational” to get another 200-300 million people on the internet. 

The Bobble keyboard was made available in 37 Indian languages and included features such as swipe typing, voice to text, word suggestion and auto correct. That’s more than what Gboard has with 22 Indian languages. The app retained and engaged more users than Google Gboard and Microsoft SwiftKey, according to an MIUI (Xiaomi’s Mi user interface) research.

Ashvin Vellody, partner, Deloitte India, explains why Bobble could achieve this and how such homegrown start-ups have a first-mover advantage. “They know what India wants at the grassroots level. Companies such as these are taking off because they are solving issues at scale, while giving insights about customers,” he says. 

Cashing in

Now that they had garnered everyone’s attention, Prasad wanted to monetise the fondness for stickers. They had already gathered 15 million users in 2017, and decided to offer content branding — their key revenue model today. With over 200 freelance designers, they created brand-focused stickers that could be further personalised through selfies. For instance, for a particular dating app, Bobble created stickers that said, “Totally swipe right material” or “Superlike”. This helped the brand build a positive image and the dating app’s content became 4x more shareable than that of other dating apps, according to the company. The start-up, in turn, would earn Rs.5-15 per share. The app has partnered with over 50 popular brands including Adidas, Reebok, McDonald’s, Zomato and PVR. “We were letting the users become ambassadors of these brands, who in turn get access to a huge WhatsApp population,” explains Prasad.

The start-up further improvised on the advertising model by reading “intent”. That means every time you type using the keyboard, the back-end algorithm reads the message, gauges motive and suggests products accordingly. For instance, if you wish a friend ‘Happy Birthday’, the keyboard will immediately suggest websites that can be browsed to look for the perfect gift. 

Vellody says, “They are fine-tuning consumer needs based on how he interacts with the product.” He believes such predictive technology can give real-time insights to both the consumer and the brands, but adds that companies such as Bobble will have to strike a balance in gathering personal details. “If the app is too intrusive, people will push back,” he adds.

Prasad’s vision is just that — being effective without being intrusive. He says, “We don’t know who the user is. We only have their Google Ad ID, no PII (or personally identifiable information). This is because Google’s Android adds a layer over PII.” Bobble would just know, for example, that ‘Google ID xyz likes sweets.’

Currently, the keyboard offers 41 languages — including English, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic and 37 Indian regional languages. It helps users chat in different languages simultaneously, as the app precisely reads the words and converts them into the script of the respective language. The app can also read the emotion of the user based on the sentences and suggests ‘emojis’ accordingly, making typing faster. The app currently has 10 million monthly active users (MAUs) in India and Indonesia combined.

Beating the biggies

Currently working as a team of 50 spread across offices in Gurugram and Bengaluru, the company is scaling up and looking to partner with smartphone manufacturers and get their keyboard installed as a default setting. In fact, sealing such a deal earlier this month with Xiaomi — for its mid-range phones costing Rs.8,000-15,000 — was a defining moment in Bobble’s journey. Earlier, after downloading the app, you would have to go to the phone settings and choose Bobble as your keyboard over Google. Now, the Bobble keyboard is the default one on Xiaomi, and revenue from the platform is shared between the phone company and the start-up. While their core revenue comes from branding content, Bobble also seeks different avenues such as white labelling and upfront payment from OEMs. The start-up has also worked with Lava, InFocus and Panasonic, and a few Indus OS manufactured brands such as Gionee, Micromax and Karbonn. 

Besides the first-mover advantage in the regional language content space, investors are also convinced that Bobble might have another edge over global players such as Google, Microsoft and Baidu. Prashant Tandon, co-founder and CEO of 1MG Technologies, a digital healthcare platform and one of Bobble’s investors, says, “Bobble understands local consumers and a lot of ecosystems in the world are looking for customisation. Smaller players are more nimble and deeply engaged with the consumers.” He adds that it is not a winner-takes-it-all market. “People will choose the keyboard based on what fits their needs,” he says. 

Singhal of Pravega Ventures, another of Bobble’s investors, is also optimistic about the app’s future. “Google can’t win every battle. If Google and Facebook could do everything, there would be no point in funding start-ups anywhere,” he opines, and reminds that Facebook was a start-up when Google already had Orkut as a free social media platform that was very popular back then. “Bobble has to find out a unique way to get through to Indian consumers. It can be around localisation, payment infrastructure or even subscription,” he adds. 

But, remember Hike Messenger — the app that introduced stickers in the country but couldn’t beat WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger? Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal, from personal experience, says, “It’s going to be difficult to survive in the market, given that Google, which owns Android, has been working on this (smartphone keyboard component) for over a decade now.” While Prasad created a keyboard, Mittal had a messaging application in 2014. The platform bundled chat, stickers, e-payment and wallets into one. “In just a few years, technology has advanced so much and data is dirt cheap. I don’t think the keyboard will be the dominant way of communication,” he adds. 

Vellody elucidates on that and says the next advancement will be through voice interface. “There is software that can recognise 30 different English accents. So, these primitive keyboards will get replaced by voice assistants eventually,” he says. 

Future ready

But until the world progresses to voice, Prasad’s business is thriving, with steady topline growth. Bobble’s revenue has increased from Rs.11.6 million in FY17 to Rs.21.6 million in FY19. Relying on commitment from various phone-manufacturing partners, Prasad estimates that Bobble will reach Rs.50 million in revenue by the end of FY20.

Strangely, Prasad sees his next phase of growth in the fintech sector. Calling the sector reasonably boring, Prasad says that he’s going to make fintech more expressive and personalised, just like his keyboard. “The plan is to distribute lending and payment tools across social apps and make them more user-friendly. Most people don’t understand online lending but they do understand expressions. With our scale and position to distribute serious products in India, we can bring these tools to them,” he explains. Without divulging the company’s name, he continues, “We’ve already created a solution for one of the top three fintech players in the country, where we integrated P2P (peer to peer) payment on our keyboard.”

While Prasad has triumphed in his entrepreneurial battle — from a six-year-old boy being felicitated by the district collector in the small town of Chaibasa in Jharkhand to getting featured in the ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ list in 2018 — Bobble is yet to tackle its long-term challenge of reading the minds of its users without the user minding it too much.