Viber is one of the fastest growing instant messaging applications. With unique features such as doodles, stickers and voice notes, it accounts for about 400 million users across 193 countries, including 25 million in India. In the previous quarter, Japanese e-commerce major Rakuten acquired it for $ 900 million. On a visit to India, Viber chief executive Talmon Marco shares with Ranju Sarkar the company’s plans for India and its strategy to compete with WhatsApp. Edited excerpts:
How do you plan to grow in India?
For us, India is a very significant market and that is why we have a team on the ground. It is one of the two markets with more than a billion people; the other is pretty much closed to the world. This makes it unique.
The Indian market is at an early stage of development—most users don’t have smartphones or mobile data but this will change in the next couple of years…You can already buy basic smartphones for $ 45-$ 50 and this will continue to go down.
Everyone will have a smartphone, everyone will have data and everyone will have Viber on their phones. There’s no reason why people will use SMS when they have something like Viber.
We expect to continue to grow here, and fast. That’s why we have a local office. This is the first time we have done a TV commercial; we will do this in other markets, too. But it shows how committed we are to this market.
What has been the learning in India?
Indian users seem to appreciate the fine aspects of Viber; we are going to push that. Viber is not just a (messaging) tool, it’s a way of life; it’s about having fun; it’s about being able to express yourself in many ways.
Yes, you can send a message on both Viber and WhatsApp; you could drive to work on a bicycle or a motorcycle or a 1980-vintage Suzuki car or a latest BMW. Personally, I will either go for the bicycle, which is environment-friendly or the latest BMW. In many ways, this is the difference between Viber and WhatsApp.
You could deliver a ‘hello’ on both, but if you want to express yourself and show uniqueness, you could send a sticker. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. You can send a ‘yes’ on a message, or use any of the interesting stickers we have to say yes and express yourself in five different ways, which you can’t by just writing hello on a message.
What has the acquisition by Rakuten meant for Viber?
Life hasn’t changed much, though I just get to travel more, which is fun. But overall, the day-to-day life has not changed. We continue to run Viber as an independent company. I think that is important because Rakuten is a fast-moving company, but a big company.
Someone who owns Viber will want it to run like a young, small start-up, and Rakuten has allowed that. That means I can go into a meeting and say we are backed by a company which has billion-dollar sales; we have resources at our disposal, which were not available earlier; we are much stronger, but at the same time, much faster. At a personal level, it (acquisition) is a vindication of our vision and a reward for our hard work.
What are the synergies you would like to explore and leverage?
Rakuten offers e-commerce services. It has also added services such as travel booking and golf course reservations. In Japan, it offers 30-40 services. What connects these programmes is the Rakuten id, which can be used for all its services, as well as super points, an incentive people can earn in any of the services and use to buy a service. Outside Japan, Viber could serve as the basis for adding such services, either by building our own or by partnering others. We bring an additional 400 million users, which could enhance Rakuten’s reach. But it’s not something you will see in a market such as India soon.
How do you compete with the popular WhatsApp?
We primarily compete on the product side; services such as Viber are better than SMSes in these they offer a much richer experience. We believe Viber offers a service that is significantly better than WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is primarily a free SMS service. But users deserve more. For instance, a user might want to know if the message was seen by the other person, not just delivered.
Also, I might want to express in a way that is more creative, send stickers and want these to be delivered instantly, not after a minute, as might be the case with an app such as WhatsApp. Also, I might want to use an app such as Viber on a different device such as a PC, a laptop or a tablet, or connect with someone not on Viber. All these are available on Viber, not on WhatsApp.