[EXCLUSIVE] Chingari's Sumit Ghosh on controversies, pivots and investor pressure
In an interview with YourStory, Co-founder and CEO Sumit Ghosh touches on how far his ecosystem approach for Chingari has worked, the recent controversies, investor pressure and top-level exits.
It’s been a busy June for the short video app Co-founder Aditya Kothari and CTO Tariq Wali.. On June 20, it laid off about 20% of its workforce and saw top-level exits, including
Earlier this week, the startup found itself in the limelight over media reports that claimed Chingari is building an adult entertainment app via its paid 1-on-1 video call feature. Chingari launched the feature, for users above 18 years, in April this year.
YourStory sat down with Co-founder and CEO Sumit Ghosh to understand Chingari’s pivots, layoffs, top level exits and its comparisons with Chamet, a livestream app known for its explicit content.
Before we could begin, Ghosh insisted on a complete run-through of the Chingari app. He began to talk about the Non-fungible token (NFT) programme and its native marketplace, moving on to the short video feed where user-generated content scrolls through.
The app’s taskbar illustrates what Chingari wants to be—a short video app, a Web3 wallet, and a marketplace, besides a livestream platform and an audio platform—all at once.
Chingari has seen many pivots. In 2018, along with his Co-founders, Ghosh started the company as a WhatsApp Status creation platform, after he took note of ShareChat’s success in the country. Its most significant pivot came much later, in 2020, right around when the social media platform TikTok’s ban was in place.
The company has so far raised at least $61.5 million across seven rounds, with the latest funding in February.
YS [YourStory]: Is short video a priority for Chingari?
SG [Sumit Ghosh]: Honestly no, not for the next six months at least. Long term we still see ourselves as a short video Web3 app, but right now the priority is on the audio rooms and the live one-on-one feature which is making revenue for us. The focus is to get the company into a profitable status and then invest the money back.
YS: Chingari has had some top-level exits recently, besides the recent layoffs. What happened there?
SG: I see it this way. You’ve figured out a revenue model, and there are teams that are sitting idle. We were focused on a few things, our layoffs saw firings in a little bit of the Web3 division and in the short video.
When you are working with limited money do you have the luxury of burning the same amount of money or should you take a harsh step and let some people go now and then let them go in a dignified way? That’s what it came down to. We honestly, did the best we could and the layoffs at least helped us extend our runway by six months. But these decisions are always tough.
As for the top-level exits, he [Aditya Kothari] has a 0.75% in the company, so not exactly a Co-founder. He was a friend of mine, who joined because we knew each other from the startup space and we got close, then Chingari took off. Initially, he was part of the company and then things began to fall apart… I want to do the Web3 thing and he thought that would not work.
Then I left him out of the Web3 part and executed it, I showed that it will work. He was not active in the company for the last 18 months, he still has his equity.
As for Tariq, [The CTO] … his style of work was not matching my style. I tend to be a fast mover—I like to test out five ideas at once. He came from a more enterprise background. The livestream feature was delayed by seven months, after Tariq left, the team that I hired we built it in three weeks.
I don’t have the luxury of waiting for seven months, so I think that was the point we decided to part ways.
YS: Do you think the comparison between Chingari and Chamet is accurate?
SG: Absolutely not. Chamet is a dedicated live-streaming one-on-one app, Chingari is much more than that. For us, video call on live is just a feature.
It could even shut down tomorrow. Right now we are testing it and it is generating revenue so we are keeping it. But it isn’t the only thing. There are five other key features that users are using on our platform.
YS: So then, why is the comparison between Chamet and Chingari being made?
SG: I will tell you where it comes from. When we decided that we wanted to set out making this feature I looked at what other competing apps there were on the market.
I told my product managers look there are these two apps Chamet and Tango with live streaming and one-on-one calls, lets try and emulate that, because they have the kind of quality and production we aim for. I am not denying that I used those apps as a reference point but I still say, Chingari is much more than that.
YS: Then tell us, what is the average time that a user spends on Chingari and what feature is it on?
SG: About 30 minutes, but it depends. Audio room users are audio room users, they are not on live not on short video. Each feature has its own set of users.
YS: Since you’re also a social media app content moderation is important. How big is the team that undertakes content moderation at Chingari and what is your policy?
SG: For manual content moderation we have about 40 people. But these people get filtered content from AI. About 95% of our content is automatically filtered by AI, and we have already written a lot about this publicly about how the model works. It is a very aggressive model, capable of even filtering out false positives. As a social media app we are very strict about our content.
First of all in India there are very strict laws about porn content or explicit content so we have to be appropriate and follow the laws. We have ensured that everything is legally done…We have to be clean and safe to use. Because there are women streaming, we will ensure that anyone who enters the space is 18+.
Even on Instagram, men go up and say things that are abusive or sexually explicit. We still try our best to remove these comments. But some users put a . or an asterix and bypass the system.
I admit, things are a bit controversial and there are chances that explicit things could happen, but anything could happen on a one-on-one platform… this could happen even on Whatsapp or Snapchat. But just to label Chingari for being for explicit content is wrong. We are just a platform.
YS: When you set out in 2020 with Chingari, you had a vision to do something with short video. Then came the decision to pivot and launch something in the Web3 space and GARI came about to be. So what is Chingari now?
SG: The vision for Chingari was to build a social network for a billion people. The parent company is also called Tech4Billion which basically intends to build for a billion people. The idea was never to be the TikTok of India. Now to achieve the vision [of catering to a billion people] we keep trying ideas, products and features….
To build a product like Reels or Tiktok… I mean we had already lost the race. Not just Chingari, but also Moj and Josh. I’m sure they have realised [it by now] that to make Reels or Tiktok in India, you need that kind of content depth which needs at least a billion and a billion and half investment. So we realised this very early that if we continued to try just with short video and features we will definitely fail.
Around this time this is when the crypto market was involved… we spoke to a few investors and thought about how to bring things on-chain and that’s when GARI came to be.
GARI was growing every day. It saw 10,000, 20,000 users almost every day before the fall [LUNA, FTX]. But that doesn’t mean we have abandoned GARI altogether. Livestreaming is just another feature and we were seeing traction on that so we decided to scale that, we have even integrated GARI into this feature so it is all connected.
YS: Speaking of GARI, at the time of the launch you had major endorsements and even had Salman Khan in your ads. Do you have any regrets about how aggressive the campaigning was?
SG: I do. You see, this was my first time setting up something in the cryptocurrency space. I’ve been in the scene since 2014 but this [GARI] was my first time running a crypto company.
How it works in the space is that there are OGs in the space, they don’t like it when a crypto project is associated with a celebrity… they feel that it's some sort of scam that is shilled by a celebrity. But we didn’t see it that way.
We saw it as this, Chingari is a consumer product, Salman is a consumer brand, so we will use his brand and image to promote Chingari and people will adopt. Our focus was on mass adoption of GARI… So I think that sentiment somewhere went wrong. But our intention was never to do that.
YS: How are your investors feeling about Chingari right now?
SG: We’re definitely having ups and downs with investors. When I started out with the Web3 thing, lots of different investors reached out saying why are you doing a crypto model, there were no laws in India. The western investors don’t give a hard time when you [the investors] come across a negative article about Chingari... Indian VCs were like if it’s controversial why do you need this feature?
I think with founders and VCs, there’s always this love-hate relationship.
(This story has been updated to reflect a change in the headline.)
Cover image and infographic by Nihar Apte.
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti