These former Facebook engineers’ social startup aims to become the Netflix of audio platforms

Bengaluru-based Headfone, an app that helps create and share audio content with listeners across India, wants to take the lead in the Indian audio market.
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In 2020, when the pandemic year forced many to be house bound, it was not just bread baking and binge watching that caught on. There was a new favourite on the horizon - podcasts!

According to the Media and Entertainment Outlook 2020 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, India emerged as the third-largest podcast listening market in the world after China and the US, with 57.6 million monthly listeners.

Riding the wave was ex- Facebook software engineers, Pratham Khandelwal and Yogesh Sharma, who launched Headfone, a social audio platform in 2017 to cater to Indian users.

Run and owned by Bengaluru-based Diacoustic Labs Private Limited, Headfone entertains audio listeners with diverse talking points like stories, comedy, talks, and educational resources in multiple languages while filling the gap between supply and demand for Indian language content. Thirty-one year old Pratham, Co-founder and CEO of Headfone says,

“Audio content is very different from video or text because of how easy it is to engage with. The fact that we can engage with it while we perform other tasks makes it particularly appealing to consume throughout the day."

"The audio format is also special in a way that you as the listener become part of the story. On Headfone too, listeners love to become part of Horror, Fantasy and Romantic stories, " he adds.

Available on Google Play, Headfone helps create and share audio content with listeners across India. While on one side it connects podcasters, storytellers, artists, musicians and motivational speakers to passionate listeners, it also works with writers, voice-over artists, sound engineers and musicians to produce original audio series on the platform.

Within a span of three years, Headfone has become one of the highest rated apps on Google Play, with 4.8 stars and more than 5 million installs. Currently, the platform has about 3,00,000 pieces of audio content across more than 25 Indian languages by content creators like RJs, authors, and undiscovered storytellers.

The startup has a small team of 10 and has raised a total funding of $3.75 million in two rounds of funding. The founders say they want Headfone to be the “YouTube of audio story telling” with a focus on India.

Silicon-valley to Bengaluru

Pratham and Yogesh, friends from before, were also colleagues who worked together at the Facebook HQ in California as software engineers. With both being alumni of IIIT Allahabad, they also bonded over the fact that they both hailed from small towns in Rajasthan.

“We had a lot in common, and we often discussed the ‘India’ that lay outside of the cities,” says Pratham.

Co-founder and CTO, Yogesh, 28, tells YourStory that while they both realised that Facebook did well as a text and photo social network, and YouTube garnered a higher share of the video social network market with Instagram and other platforms chipping in, there was no one platform that catered to audio in a similar scale.

“We felt that audio was fundamental to human connection, and a lot more spontaneous than text or video. Combined with a belief in audio as a channel and knowing Tier II and Tier III India like we did, we decided to come back to India and start Headfone in 2017,” Yogesh says. 

Initially, Pratham and Yogesh were still hung up on Silicon Valley, evident from the fact that most of their content was tech heavy. However, they soon discovered that their audience wanted variety in their content.

“We realised that India is a land that is rich in stories, and there are people out there narrating stories in diverse genres like horror, love, the works of Premchand, and so on. This got us thinking that audio is also a medium that enables high quality story-telling with minimal investment of resources or learning. That was reason enough for us to start working with storytellers in India and featuring their stories on Headfone,” says Pratham.

Business model and growth

Headfone is a free to use app currently. The team is experimenting with various charging models. “We are at the pre-monetisation stage but have already started experiments around premium content,” says Pratham. 

The pandemic is adding to the company’s growth. “We recently crossed the 5 million installs mark, and of that, we saw 4 million installs in 2020 alone. About 25 percent of our users are actively using the app every month and the time spent on the app is going up,” tells Yogesh.

In terms of creators, the company has seen close to 500,000 tracks being uploaded on Headfone, with 85 percent of them being uploaded in the last 15 months alone. 

Pratham claims that over the last three years, Headfone has become a strong community and a social network in itself - something that no one else has been able to create.

“You can follow people and channels created by them, comment on their work and actively collaborate as well. In fact, the individual followership itself has crossed 600,000 across several influential individuals."

A few horror channels have crossed the 1 million subscribers mark as well. Motivational speakers like Naman Sharma have seen their channels close in on 150,000 subscribers in a short time, demonstrating that good content in Indian languages gets significant audio followers in India,” says Pratham.

As for creators, they have two avenues to monetise their talent on the platform. Firstly, if they are authors or have original creations, they can put up their audio dramas as premium shows. A couple of authors have done that, pricing their audio dramas at Rs 49 for the full show. With a percentage of it retained by the platform, the rest goes to the authors. Secondly, creators also participate in the production of audio dramas as theatre artists cum voice over artists, sound engineers and other writers and translators. The services also get paid.

Funding and future plans

The startup was part of Axilor Ventures’s 8th Accelerator Cohort, Winter 2018. Fosun RZ Capital invested in the startup in July 2019, and recently, Hashed, a South Korean VC, marked its entry in India by investing in Headfone. In total, the company has raised funding of $3.75 million.

The startup wants to continue focusing on content, community and growth. Headfone plans to launch new and more interesting formats in audio space with audio shows, drama audiobooks and more. “We will also experiment with new features such as Headfone Live, a live audio conversation format which we are exploring and will launch soon. Growth will continue to be a significant objective for Headfone,” says Pratham.

Competition

An array of podcast platforms have found their niche in India. Some of the platforms that Headfone competes with include Khabri, Pratilipi, Aawaz, Castbox, Spotify, and Amazon’s Audible Suno, to name a few. However, Pratham says that most existing platforms bring professional creators on the platform to keep the content supply running.

“We are building Headfone as a platform and not a media house where we nurture individual amateur creators to become professional artists. This ensures that Headfone has a unique, diverse and scalable content repository,” he adds.

Pratham further says that this difference in model can be seen between the amount of content on Netflix vs. the amount of content on YouTube, “both wonderful companies on their own, of course”.

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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