Don’t pick up! The rise and fall of a massive industry based on missed calls
Given how entrepreneurial India’s tech ecosystem is, it did not take long for a firm to build a business model around missed calls: “…a company in Bangalore called ZipDial took the tool and transformed it. With a couple of rings to the appropriate ZipDial hotline, customers received automated texts and callbacks that delivered live cricket scores for a big match, a deal on an affordable shampoo, rudimentary on-demand radio for Bollywood songs, or celebrity tweets — content supplied by brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. In exchange, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products.”
ZipDial grew very big very fast as the big FMCGs tied up with the firm in all sorts of innovative ways: “In 2013, Unilever, which was one of ZipDial’s clients, partnered with its rival Ozonetel to establish an innovative use for the medium: a mobile-based on-demand music service called Kan Khajura Tesan, “the Earworm Station.” To listen to Kan Khajura, residents of Bihar and Jharkhand — Indian states where daily power outages were common, but 80% of households now owned at least one mobile phone set — would send a missed call to the station. In return, they would receive a callback with 15 minutes of Bollywood content, mostly banter and songs from films, interspersed with Unilever ads. “At the time, you couldn’t listen to songs easily,” says Prashant Harsh, a 23-year-old student and regular Kan Khajura subscriber. “You had to pay to get them from a shop in a memory card.”…Kan Khajura grew to become, for several years, the most accessed “radio channel” in Bihar and had around 50 million subscribers across the country.”
Then in 2014 came the offer from Twitter to buy the firm: “Twitter wanted to purchase ZipDial for a reported $30–40 million, in what would be the tech company’s first acquisition in India.”
Seven years on ‘missed calls’ is an all but redundant technology in India thanks to a combination of cheap Chinese smartphones and plunging tariffs: “As the mobile adoption rate accelerated, smartphones continued to proliferate, especially as Indian and Chinese manufacturers like Micromax and Xiaomi entered the market in force, selling devices for as little as $80. In 2013, the number of total smartphone users in India had swelled to 117 million, a 55% increase from the previous year…. by 2016, tech in India — already changing at warp speed as its online population expanded, given steadily falling data rates — was set to undergo a transformation. “I would not have built that same company again in 2016 that I built in 2009,” Wagoner said. The company’s founders could not have been able to predict just how swiftly India would move past the missed call…
In late 2016, Mukesh Ambani, a close ally of Modi and now India’s richest person, formally launched his new telecom company, Reliance Jio, promising to extend cheap 4G internet to all Indians.
Jio’s prices at launch were so ludicrous…Its competitors panicked and slashed their own rates to remain competitive. By the end of the ensuing price war, the cost of one GB of data had dropped from roughly 226 rupees in 2015 and 76 rupees in 2016 to 19 rupees, and it was still trending downward.
The age of mobile data “came much faster than anticipated, thanks to Jio,” Wagoner says.”