How WhatsApp Business has become a popular tool for micro enterprises
Buy fish through a chat window — that is the USP of Parthaa Kundu’s venture. Delhi-based Kundu, the founder of Fishappy, home-delivers fish from selected vendors. Customers can see videos of live fish, select what they want and type in their orders — all on WhatsApp’s platform for business.
Kundu, 47, started Fishappy in 2015 and promoted his business through word of mouth, a website and pamphlets in newspapers. He signed up for WhatsApp Business in June 2019. “The business exploded, as users were already familiar with WhatsApp.
Now 97% of the business comes via the app,” says Kundu, who was in the luxury travel industry before becoming an entrepreneur. He sources fish from select vendors in Delhi and sells to 500-550 customers a month in the Delhi-NCR region now, from around 300 customers 18 months back.
Many small businesses like Kundu’s around the country are finding that the business platform of the popular chat app might be the most fitting tech platform for their scale and nature. Small businesses struggle to be discovered on larger ecommerce platforms. And their scale does not permit them to invest in digital marketing and drive traffic to their own website or Facebook page. They find Whatsapp Business to be an acceptable substitute for a website or app and love that anyone can manage the backend. There is no need for dedicated customer service staff, as you can answer queries on the go. This helps improve customer satisfaction as users get instant replies.
Abhijit Bose, head of WhatsApp India, says the app enables end-to-end communication cycle between small businesses and customers. “What started as a P2P (peer-to-peer) service has enabled users to connect the same way in P2B (peer-tobusiness) conversations.”
About one million small businesses in India have already signed up on the platform. Globally, that number stands at 5 million.
The two major drawbacks, however, are the absence of payments and features designed to support businesses of a relatively small scale. This means once a small business scales, the owner would have to find a more appropriate platform for their size. Once the platform throws opens payments, which the company says will happen within a few months, it could see rapid adoption by more small businesses.
“We can make business owners’ life easier and it also help in increasing their sales,” says Bose. “I think that will end up digitising them more as they get more comfortable. Another distinguishing factor is our scale and we are able to touch tier-2 and -3 cities because various sectors use WhatsApp. For example, agriculture is a huge sector where a lot of businesses run on WhatsApp for different needs.”
Businesses can download the app for free and create a profile of their offerings. But they have to register a separate phone number for business use as the number used for WhatsApp cannot be used for the business platform. It also allows a business to register using a landline number, unlike in the mother app. Businesses can easily sort and automate messages.
The flip side is that businesses would have to use online or offline campaigns to promote their presence on the messaging app. However, despite not supporting payments at the moment, the app has the potential for businesses to convert interest into a sale. Indu Wary, the founder of saree and accessory seller Asomkriti, discovered this in 2018. Bengaluru-based Wary, 32, a former product manager with an IT company, started the venture in 2017 to sell products such as mekhela chadar (traditional sarees from Assam), kurtis, jewellery and stoles sourced directly from 55 weavers in Assam.
Though she was selling through Asomkriti’s website, she soon realised that people often add items to cart but don’t make an actual purchase. Ecommerce sites were overcrowded with large sellers. So Wary signed up on WhatsApp Business in mid-2018. “Things changed almost immediately, as people trusted the app. Our conversion from interest to sales increased to 60%.”
The startup sells 600 products a month now and does business worth Rs 5.5-6 lakh. The app has a green check mark on verified profiles, making it easier for people to know if the business is genuine or not. Ahmedabad-based Lightspeed Mobility, which makes battery-operated cycles, is another venture that has been able to close more online sales because of WhatsApp Business.
The company, founded by Rahil Rupawala, 33, in 2017 has 15 dealers in tier-1 cities but relies on online sales in smaller cities. “WhatsApp is crucial to talk to our customers.
It helps us do personalised customer service,” says Rupawala. Lightspeed handles 250300 queries a day over WhatsApp and sells 100 cycles—costing Rs 31,000-57,000 — a month now. Not just products, startups are also offering services over WhatsApp Business. For Mumbaiheadquartered Hey Deedee, an all-women courier service, the platform is the linchpin for seamless operations in 10 cities. The 900-women team of Hey Deedee, which delivers couriers for e-commerce companies such as Amazon, starts its day by checking updates (number of couriers, pick up points, etc) on the app. The crew then plans the deliveries and a territory head in each city coordinates with the field teams.
“We do all product deliveries except food,” says Revathi Roy, managing director & CEO. “Conversations with field staff happen over the business app and they update us over it in case of any issue. I have pan-India visibility of the business on the app.” The app has reached the financial space, too. ScripBox, a Benguluru-based fintech company, uses WhatsApp Business to educate users on loans, mutual funds and other such products. It is also looking at collecting know-your-customer documents through the app. Manu Prasad, chief marketing officer, ScripBox, says, “Usage of internet is moving to mobiles. WhatsApp is attractive because of its popularity.”
Chandigarh-based Feetport uses the app to verify customer details for some banks. The startup also uses the app to manage field teams of clients, including Indraprastha Gas Limited and Jaquar bath fittings. A common theme among all these startups is that they have a small team — LightSpeed has 20, Feetport 18, Fishappy has four and Asomkriti has seven.
The company has a separate solution for larger businesses as well, but is currently open only to a select few. Such entities pay for the service, get an API (application programming interface) and can customise the app.
For instance, users booking tickets on the websites of Makemytrip or PVR Cinemas can opt to receive booking notifications on WhatsApp. Users can get tickets or a QR code on the phone and also get access to a seat map to select their plane seats or book in-flight meals.
Makemytrip.com’s Chief Product Officer Anshuman Bapna says, “Majority of India is on WhatsApp already and it helps us easily contact people who have opted to use this method. The biggest use-case is customer support.” Bose says, “An API (application programming interface) version is not something that your typical store owner would be able to support. But it can help companies that operate at a larger scale and responds to millions of request a day.”
Kotak Bank, OYO and BookMyShow are some of the other companies that have signed up for this service. Parikshit Dar, co-founder & director of BookMyShow, says, “The app helps us create a personal connection with our customers via instant communication updates.” The app is like a default communication platform for BookMyShow. However, one complaint most small businesses have is that WhatsApp Business does not have a payment option.
Ankur Pahwa, partner, EY, says, “One big challenge is payments. WeChat’s success (in China) came with payments. Else it would have just be a platform for discovery, lead generation and there would be gaps between discovery and conversion.” A payment service will be added to the app by the year-end, says WhatsApp India’s Bose. Until then, people like Fishappy’s Kundu will have to rely on other platforms, credit cards or cashon-delivery to collect money. That is not yet a problem for Kundu as he handles 500-550 orders a month.
“If it scales to 1,000 orders or more a month, WhatsApp Business will continue to be an important part, but I might need other touchpoints as well.” Or he would have to shift to the paid service. For now, the messaging app fills a void for entrepreneurs who find e-commerce marketplaces too big for comfort.