The internet, which was once a tool that could help connect people globally, is now used to make our everyday life more manageable. In fact, today, a lot of our interactions are confined to our backyard. During the day and age where international information is available at our fingertips, hyperlocal has drifted further away. With not many pivotal players during its time, Iamhere took one such step to bridge the gap between users and their neighbourhood in 2017. The Bridge Chronicle spoke to Mr Naren Kumar on his journey to developing his hyperlocal startup into what it is today.
Could you tell me a little about your journey to Iamhere? What was the thought that went behind choosing a hyperlocal approach for an app?
Shortly into my career, I had the opportunity to be a part of the founding team in an AI IoT startup called Intellve, which makes command and control software for smart cities and enterprises. I moved out of Intellve a couple of years later to start Iamhere because when I first landed in Mumbai, I was, of course, figuring out how to get in and out of the local train! But the biggest problem was who's there in my neighbourhood and what is happening around me. I'm a guitarist, and I used to have a band back here in Bangalore called -- Agam.
When I first went to Mumbai, I was looking for musicians near me. And I couldn't find any of them. I used to blog back then (and I still do at times) so, I searched for any bloggers near me. Looking for very, very simple things took me weeks and months together. That's when I realised how big a role technology plays today to connect us from across the world.
If we're all in the neighbourhood, there's less chance to connect. How many of us know who's living next door? Because ironically 70 per cent of our lives are spent in our neighbourhoods and communities. And we don't have technology platforms to solve that. And it started as an idea, and it's pitched today before editors. Our vision is to bridge the gap — that exists today between the virtual internet world and the physical world. And since that can happen only in the neighbourhood, we decided to create a technology platform that caters to it.
What sets Iamhere apart from its competitors?
At a very high level, the hyperlocal market itself is gradually maturing. It has gone from pure hyperlocal discovery to hyperlocal collaboration.
Hyperlocal discoveries are google maps.
The hyperlocal transaction is Swiggy.
However, in hyperlocal collaboration, there aren't many players in India or across the world. Because five years ago, hyperlocal collaboration was even technologically not possible.
So, in 2015 we wouldn't have been able to start Iamhere. It has taken that technology today, and now there's an app called NextDoor in the USA, which is doing pretty well. Some small organisations are trying to achieve this goal but haven't been able to.
People still go back to WhatsApp groups, notice boards and emails -- which is very unstructured and informal. So that is what we're digitising — neighbourhood and communities. On Google maps, you have a pharmacy store, and while that is not our primary audience, because they're in the vicinity, we have pharmacy stores on our app. But more than them, we have the pharmacist as a person on our app. So, this means you can chat with the pharmacist, place an order and get deliveries. The pharmacy can post on their wall saying, "hey, 20 per cent discount". So it becomes a digital, interactive presence.
Do you think hyperlocal is slowly becoming the future for markets and communities? What is your view on this?
There's definitely a disruption in the market transition that's happening here. Even if we were to stick to Google statistics, 57 per cent (two thirds) of smartphone users look for local info every week. One-fourth look for local information every day. Sixty per cent of searches that are happening on the local businesses end up in physical visit. Thirty per cent of that gets a conversion. And that is the power of the local community. That is why we're seeing a massive disruption right now.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced while you were working on this app?
"Why one more app?" was probably the biggest one! After all, if someone comes to me and asks me to download an app — I will ask them the same question. The number one problem that we wanted to solve was the product problem. You end up making a product that is as close to the problem that you want to solve.
But then will people who love the solution that you want? Will people use it the way you want? Will people pay for the way you imagine? — so that is where we slowly went about solving. The first problem was the product, and then we had a good feedback channel. We personally interacted with the first ten thousand users. We took feedback, we went and sat with them and saw how they're using our apps.
Even now, there are about 20-30 pings that come on our feedback channel, and I personally interact with each of those conversations. When you're saying neighbourhood — when you're saying hyperlocal — it's almost everybody in the bracket. We have CEOs on the app, and we have cobblers on the app. Cobblers become business, and CEOs become a demand.
The biggest challenge was to have one single app that could cater to both the CEO and the cobbler. How can we make it simple? — and sophisticated enough? How can we engage with them meaningfully with an engagement model? And how can we convert the engagement model into revenue? We've moved out of the product challenge, but we still haven't completely moved out of it. I'd say it's a work in progress.
There's a lot of privacy concerns nowadays. So how does Iamhere moderate content?
For privacy, we have multiple levels of security. On technology, and then various levels of what we call user privacy on the app. The user registers with his real name, phone number, google credentials, etc. — and that stays between Iamhere and the user. This person is creating a neighbourhood profile. He can keep his real name, or he can keep a masked name. He can disclose his complete address, or he can choose to reveal some of it.
When he creates his profile, he can keep his phone number public or hide it. He can say I only accept chats — I don't accept calls. There are these multiple levels of user privacy that we give as functions to users to choose from, and we keep it very simple. Over and above, we have an AI engine that does the first level of content moderation.
From inappropriate behaviour to any sensitive content to whatever it could be — our engine automatically filters that and flags it. And if it is a repetitive behaviour, we send a notification to the user, and if they continue it, we remove (ban) the user from the system.
Other than this, there's also a community-controlled model, where if you as a user find something inappropriate, you can always flag or report that user. Everything you see comes automated through the community model and technology, so there's minimal manual intervention in the process.
Apart from just bridging the gap across the community, Iamhere also participates in a lot of social cause and impact? Could you elaborate as to how that works?
The three things that we solve for our users in the neighbourhood are hobby related collaboration, business and professional collaboration and social cause and citizen engagement piece. So, what we've done is that we've partnered with a lot of NGOs, and we have the largest aggregation of verified NGOs. We have integrated the NGOs and listed them on the Iamhere app.
So, say if you have a weekend off and you're in a vicinity wondering where to go and volunteer for an education NGO — you can set the filter your results and find out NGOs nearby, filter them by education, choose the one you like and go and teach there. This step is what we're doing on the social front. We also do something like during the Giving Carnival (Christmas), trucks go through the city of Bangalore during this festival. People can track these trucks live on their Iamhere app and donate.
How did the idea of keeping both these things together on one platform come to you?
I, personally and all of the founding team, they're very excited about the possibility of using technology to create a social impact. Social impact may not always be in the form of charity money; you can create a for-profit enterprise and form that social impact so that it's self-sustaining by encouraging more people to replicate the model. What we focused on was just one thing: we wanted to connect people nearby.
That was the only problem we wanted to solve. So, whether you wish to connect next door in your apartment or next street in your neighbourhood — it doesn't matter. Then we thought, hey, what are the things that people want to do in the vicinity. They want to connect with like-minded people nearby — they want to participate in social initiatives. These are the three things you'd wish to do outside of your home and in your neighbourhood. We had the technology, the data, and then the network — so we decided to partner and exercise it.
Was it challenging to reach out to small-scale, home-grown businesses and bring them on board?
Yes, in some sense, it was a difficult task. Reaching, I suppose five, to seven years back would have been a problem, but these days many of them are on digital platforms. And for an app like ours, we have a strong word-of-mouth channel. That is how we've been able to acquire, but yes, it is a challenge, and more than that, it is an engagement and retention problem with them.
In this sense, if they download an app and want business next day, next week and next month. Otherwise, their phone is running out of memory — they're going to uninstall the app. So now what we do is, whenever we launch in any city, we first aggregate all this data from publically available sources. And a day before the launch, we start sending SMS communication to them. If they're not on the app, we again send them an offline SMS.
What do you think are some difficulties that some hyperlocal startups have to face today?
When we're talking about an Insta or a Facebook when they have one billion people — potentially each one of the one billion people can interact with the other remaining set of people. Whereas in a hyperlocal platform, even though one billion people can be on your app, only one lakh people will be your audience — who interact maybe 70 to 80 per cent of the time. Now, the success and failure of a hyperlocal platform will be about "hey, can you keep the one lakh people together".
So, which is why we visualised Iamhere as a horizontal hyperlocal platform that can then enable vertical layers on top of it. So, any hyperlocal social startup would have to solve how to keep the entire neighbourhood together in one single place.
Do you think social media has a role to play in enhancing the feeling of community and togetherness?
I think it'd be remarkably pessimistic to say, "social media isn't doing that". After all, today, all of us are connected with our LKG and UKG classmates — thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp! Of course, everything has its own negative effect. Social media definitely has enhanced the community angle — but over the last few decades, human society as a civilisation has gone through a journey. And we're at a stage where we need technology or a third party platform to enable collaboration.
Are there any new features you're planning to introduce with Iamhere?
We will be introducing video-based interactions. Videos have come up as a robust requirement for our users, so we've started working on that, and it should be live sometime soon. Apart from this, we're also launching our web version — which means people won't even have to download the app. This move would particularly help the businesses as they can solely send a link to their customers on WhatsApp or Facebook group. And the others may not have to download an app.