Entrepreneurs

The 29-year-old CEO of Whatsapp rival Hike on pitfalls founders should avoid

Kavin Bharti Mittal, chief executive officer of Hike, speaks during the Rise conference in Hong Kong, China.
Anthony Kwan | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Kavin Bharti Mittal, chief executive officer of Hike, speaks during the Rise conference in Hong Kong, China.

The key to building a successful start-up is understanding the value of time, according to 29-year-old Kavin Bharti Mittal, who is founder and CEO of Indian messaging platform Hike Messenger.

Mittal started Hike in 2012 as an instant messaging app that has now evolved into a platform offering various services, including payments and news. The company is backed by two of Asia's most prominent tech names: SoftBank Group and Tencent. It is also one of the handful of Indian start-ups that are part of the so-called unicorn club.

The company was reportedly valued at $1.4 billion, according to CB Insights. And in the five years it's been around, Hike has amassed more than 100 million registered users — nearly a tenth of India's population.

"Time compels everything," Mittal told CNBC earlier this month. "If you don't realize the value of time, it's going to be very hard for you to succeed because you're always up against something, someone or against your own funding. You've got to make progress every six months or a year."

Mittal got the idea to build a messaging app for the Indian consumer in 2011 while he enjoyed street food in an alley at Connaught Place, one of New Delhi's prominent financial and business centers. Although he had enjoyed internet connectivity for about 15 years while living abroad, Mittal said he was surprised to find the vendor serving him had no idea what the internet was.

"There's a billion people in the country like that," Mittal said. "It dawned upon me that (they) would come onto the internet for the first time in their lives. It'd be very different from how we came online."

"Once you have hundreds of thousands of active users, even millions, you have to start shifting your focus towards not building for yourself, but building for the market." -Kavin Bharti Mittal, Founder and CEO of Hike Messenger

Internet users in the past have gone through several transitions of connectivity: From the dial-up modem to broadband and fiber on desktops and 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity on mobile devices.

Finding a way to connect India's masses to the internet was a motivation for Mittal to start Hike. He said the answer had to be "something cheap, something natural" in the way people went online. "And the idea was that messaging would have something to do with it," he said. Today, many Indians connect to the internet through their mobile phones due to cheaper, faster access.

Mittal started building apps when he was in college — he previously created apps for purchasing movie tickets and discovering food recommendations. Reflecting on that experience, he said a common pitfall for many entrepreneurs is their inability to transition from building products for themselves to creating something for the mass market.

"Once you have hundreds of thousands of active users, even millions, you have to start shifting your focus towards not building for yourself, but building for the market," he said.

Mittal had a few advantages when he entered the start-up world, including that he founded his company at the beginning of India's mobile revolution. Also, his father, Sunil Mittal, was an entrepreneur and is now founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, which owns one of India's largest telecom companies. Bharti Enterprises was one of the early investors into Hike through a joint venture with SoftBank.

Hike currently faces stiff competition in India — primarily from Whatsapp, which announced earlier this year that it hit 200 million monthly active users in the country. Mittal's company has previously declined to disclose its monthly active users.

To keep pace with Whatsapp, which is owned by social media behemoth Facebook, Mittal has taken a leaf straight out of the Chinese playbook used by the likes of Tencent and Uber-rival Didi Chuxing. Hike introduced a number of proprietary services on the platform that complement messaging. Those include a mobile wallet, a news feed, a cricket score tracker and the option for direct file transfers between phones without an internet connection.

Mittal explained that while Indian smartphones are cheap, many have less memory space. So as a result, fewer apps get downloaded and the app uninstall rates are very high.

Adopting a beginner's mindset is crucial to creating new ideas and products because it allows an entrepreneur to tackle problems beyond the limits of their knowledge.

"We've done that time and time again in our journey — we knew nothing about messaging, (then) we launched messaging. We launched stickers, privacy, payments — there's a lot of great stuff happening in the company because we're good problem solvers," he said.

One problem Hike may be trying to solve could be related to how group chats function. Mittal teased that the period in the next six months to a year is going to be very interesting for Hike as it is "working on a few things."

While he didn't specify what that might entail, he said, "I think there are still many problems that are not solved in messaging. You know something as simple as groups — there's been no innovation in group chats for the last five years ... that has to change."