The Indian government’s decision to ban TikTok has turned the country’s short-form video landscape into a gold rush. American tech companies like Instagram and YouTube have made inroads in the world’s second-most populous nation, but the biggest winners of the post-TikTok era have been local platforms. No company better exemplifies this trend than VerSe Innovation, the parent of video app Josh and news aggregator Storyhunt. VerSe’s latest funding round is an $805 million Series J investment that values the company at $5 billion. Thanks to that capital, VerSe is well-positioned to serve the 1.38 billion people who call India home.
After India upheld its TikTok ban, the Chinese-owned app laid off most its staffers in the South Asian nation. Other companies then had the opportunity to rush in and claim the TikTok audience for themselves. When YouTube launched its Shorts platform, the first country it came to was India. Less than two years later, Indian creators are huge on YouTube Shorts, with stars like Dushyant Kukreja, Gulshan Kalra, and Kashvi Adlakha regularly ranking highly in our Global Top 50 charts.
If you want to watch content that is mostly in English, with some languages of the Indian subcontinent mixed in, YouTube Shorts is the place to be. If, however, you want most of your videos to be in Hindi, Gujurati, or Bengali, you’ll have to go somewhere else. That’s where Josh comes in.
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The Sanskrit-derived term “Bharat” is used to refer to Indian consumers who live outside the country’s major cities and don’t speak English. Historically, those users have been difficult to target, but technological advancements have made them hungry for content. The Bharat audience was on the minds of VerSe co-founders Umang Bedi and Virendra Gupta (pictured above) when they decided to launch Josh. “Facebook and Instagram are largely for India’s ‘sophisticated’ internet users—they don’t have enough local-language content,” Gupta told Bloomberg. “We run Indian-language content factories. The Silicon Valley companies have missed this learning.”
Josh, which takes its name from a Hindi word meaning “sparkle” and “passion,” is now billed as the “Instagram of Bharat.” That comparison is not just superficial, as Josh is designed to mimic more popular (and more global) video apps. Some of its top creators are performing local dance crazes, just like on TikTok. Others are chefs and spice vendors in regional cities and towns. In some cases, VerSe paid former TikTok stars to move their videos to Josh after the ban was upheld. “Those creators gave us legitimacy quickly,” Bedi told Bloomberg.
That legitimacy soon turned into traffic. In 2021, Josh was the fifth-most downloaded social media app in India, according to data from Sensor Tower. Only one of the apps ahead of it in that ranking is based in India (the other three are Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat). Josh now has about 150 million active users, and VerSe’s Dailyhunt reaches an audience of about 350 million.
Though encouraging numbers helped VerSe reel in its massive $805 million investment. That funding round, led by Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, gives Josh’s parent company a runway of “several years.” Bedi and Gupta’s future goals include new products and more activity in the Web3 space, but don’t expect them to abandon their core audience anytime soon. Josh’s success is a lesson for online video companies in India: The market is strong, but to fully take advantage of it, you have to go deep.