Startup founders are building companies on WhatsApp

In Asia, where I work as a partner at an early-stage VC, startups are regularly rolling out a minimum viable product (MVP) and then transacting on messaging apps.

Companies like shoe brand Portblue, AI e-commerce company Sorabel and Sama, an online recruitment platform for migrant workers, all started life using WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to communicate with customers, onboard users and raise brand awareness.

For many years, WeChat has been the default app for daily life and business in China. It’s estimated that more than 30% of all internet traffic in China is through WeChat, and in 2017 they introduced “mini-programs,” where businesses could build apps inside WeChat. Now, you never have to download any apps or go to a browser to access millions of services and businesses in WeChat.

We now see a similar trend in Southeast Asia. Here, WhatsApp is the dominant social platform and, while it has not built the same infrastructure for building apps, startups have found a way around that and now run many services on top of WhatsApp, validating with customers fast and cheaply. These companies are not only mobile-first, but they are also WhatsApp-first.

Sampingan, an Antler portfolio company founded here in Singapore, provides an on-demand workforce to businesses in Indonesia. The first version of the product was on WhatsApp. The team sourced and managed more than 2,000 blue-collar workers in Indonesia who completed 25,000 jobs in the company’s first three months.

Lisa Enckell is a partner at Antler, an early-stage venture capital firm and startup generator.

SendBird’s messaging platform gets new moderation tools, full-text search and more

SendBird is announcing a major update to its chat API for web and mobile today. With this, SendBird is adding numerous new features to its service that will make it easier for its customers to moderate images, build custom moderation tools for their specific needs and add reactions and delivery receipts to their chat interfaces.

The company, which was founded in Seoul, says it currently serves about 90 million active users across the globe and sends out about 1.5 billion messages per month. SendBird CEO John Kim tells me that the company is especially strong in the on-demand services space with customers like Gojek, iFood and Delivery Hero, as well as marketplace services like Carousell, Paytm, Treveloka and SSG, and community sites with customers like Reddit, Dream 11 and Yahoo Fantasy Sports (Disclosure: Yahoo is owned by VMG and hence has the same corporate parent as TechCrunch).

“We’ve seen a lot of recent growth in Healthcare for both care provider to patient chat as well as for benefits management,” he added. “These tend to be digital-first disruptors like Accolde, Livongo, and Grand Rounds. We have pockets of customers in gaming, dating, and live streaming.”

As for today’s updates, quite a few of them focus on moderation. There’s a new image moderation feature, for example, as well as a new RegEx profanity filter that gives moderators a lot of options for how to prevent specific messages from getting through. SendBird now also offers a GDPR-compliant API and a moderation API that its customers can use to extend the company’s built-in options.

Also new are offline sync for caching messages locally when there is a service interruption, on-demand translation to augments SendBird’s auto-translation feature and the ability to translate push notifications.

This focus on translation doesn’t come as a surprise. SendBird has a global customer base and the company has long been a strong player in the APAC region. Now, however, Kim tells me, it’s customer base is spread pretty evenly between the U.S., EMEA and APAC.

What users are most likely to notice, though, is that SendBird customers can now add reactions to their chat interfaces, making them feel a bit more like a modern messaging app on a smartphone. In addition to that, SendBird is adding delivery receipts and full-text search capabilities.

“If you think about it, chat/messaging was one of the first uses of technology (telephone, fax) and then the Internet (chat rooms, IRC, and ICQ),” Kim said when I asked him why he thinks in-app chat is now taking off. “During the desktop era, chat was limited by access to a modem and when you were at home. But the mobile era and cheap access to 3G/4G networks and WIFI has unlocked global and democratized access to chat. As smartphone adoption grew, especially in developing and heavily populated countries where people bypassed older technologies like desktops and email, the use of chat became the norm.”

He argues that in the messaging space, network-effects drive the market toward a small number of players (think WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger) — and over time, customers simply expect the same kind of convenience from the companies they deal with on a daily basis.

“Now everyone else has to catch up and ensure their experience meets the new normal,” he noted. “But most don’t have the talent or knowhow to get there or compete. Hence the current popularity and growth of chat APIs.”

Why social networks want even more gaming

Even if you don’t play games, you have spent years of your life in one or more virtual worlds.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WeChat are lightweight versions of virtual worlds. They don’t offer terrain for avatars to explore, but they are neighborhoods within cyberspace where we store assets, develop relationships and, in some instances, might even choose to hide behind an alias.

The faces we present on these platforms are different from the ones we show our friends in person. While we usually use real names and photos, our presence on Twitter and Instagram is an avatar of sorts. What we do (and do not) post, how we say what we say, how we portray ourselves through selectively chosen (and often edited) photos — it’s an online persona. The aim — conscious and subconscious — is to build social capital within the particular cultural environment of these virtual spaces.

(This is part two of a seven-part series about virtual worlds.)

The social capital gained or lost within a virtual space can connect directly to social capital in the physical world. The worlds are separate but intertwined; what percent of news stories these days revolve around what someone posted on Twitter or Instagram?

Social media apps have virtual economies the same way as games like Fortnite do, they’re just smaller and involve fewer users thus far. There is constant trading of goods and services that exist only within the virtual world of a social app. For example, individuals and companies spend real money on trading Twitter handles, buying Instagram followers, purchasing special image filters and on Twitch memberships that put a badge next to their name to signify their status as a financial supporter of a specific streamer.

On this point, CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson told me, “there’s not much reality in reality anymore,” given how much of our daily lives in “the real world” are about creating, consuming and interacting online, noting that many social media influencers earn more money in these virtual worlds than factory workers can make building physical items.