Abid Hussain Barlaskar

Zoom's India head Sameer Raje on why the video app is so hard to beat

India alone accounted for the highest number of downloads of the app in April, surpassing the share of the US by a significant number.

How does a brand, which wasn’t even a part of popular discourse at one point, become synonymous with its category over a period of only two months? And, that too, without spending a penny on advertising and marketing. While the pandemic-induced lockdown is forcing people to learn to work and execute their day-to-day business from home, it has also made way for services that help them stay virtually connected, meet in groups, conduct classes, and even get married online. Zoom may not have been a familiar name a couple of months back, and, in fact, the closest recall of the brand would be of the self-drive car rental startup Zoomcar. On the ground, this video conferencing platform competes with the likes of Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoho Meeting, Skype, Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, among others.

Zoom Video Communications (the company that owns Zoom) was founded in the US in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a former Cisco Webex (web conferencing service provider) engineer. It was launched in India in September 2019. The India office in Mumbai currently has 15 people, led by Sameer Raje, who has had stints with tech giants like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco in the past. The platform currently has data centres in Mumbai and Hyderabad. The company has just launched its ‘flagship’ product Zoom Phone (a non-video cloud calling solution for Zoom users) globally. It hasn't been launched in India yet.

According to the app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Zoom was the most downloaded non-game app globally for April 2020, with close to 131 million installs, a 60x growth from the same time last year. Zoom beat TikTok, which held the top spot earlier. And, it’s anyone’s guess which country accounted for the most number of (Zoom) installs/downloads. India topped the list, with 18.2 per cent of the total downloads, followed by the US, at 14.3 per cent. Among the other most downloaded apps were Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The number of daily participants on Zoom meetings has shot up, from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020. Zoom is currently valued at $40-50 billion. It was valued $16 billion a day after went public in April 2019. As Raje says, “Video is the new audio.” Zoom operates on a freemium model and has multiple pay slabs. While free meetings have caps on their duration and the number of participants, each slab comes with additional benefits, like meeting management dashboards, cloud storage, etc.

As a service, video conferencing is part of unified communication (which includes instant messaging/chat, voice, including IP telephony, mobility features, audio, web and video). Video conferencing also includes devices (like cameras, screens, scheduling devices) and VC services, which used to be deployed physically on the user company’s premises. Today, all of it is moving to the cloud.

"What you really need is a mobile phone, or a tablet, or a laptop, or a webcam, while at home."
Sameer Raje

“That’s where we come in. We are a cloud-based unified communication and collaboration service provider. The crisis has rendered the high-end video conferencing equipment stored in offices redundant. What you really need is a mobile phone, or a tablet, or a laptop, or a webcam, while at home. You need a platform that connects you across devices, geographies, irrespective of the hardware, or the operating system. We stitch all of these together,” says Raje.

However, Zoom is not alone. With work-from-home becoming the norm, the space is seeing an increased amount of interest from players, like Google, Microsoft and Facebook. The space has also seen many new faces.

While Google made Meet free for all Google account holders, Facebook launched Messenger Rooms, its group video chat product. WhatsApp expanded its group video calling participants from four to eight. Microsoft has been rapidly upgrading its Teams platform with newer features. Similarly, Chinese tech giant Tencent just jumped into the fray, with TVM (Tencent VooV Meeting) launching the service across platforms.

Zoom's India head Sameer Raje on why the video app is so hard to beat

All these players have a significant amount of advertising and marketing muscle. Raje says, “Unified communication and collaboration space has always been competitive. The only thing different right now is the high volume. That’s why every player is talking about it. It is a matter of pride that the industry is trying to build an equivalent of Zoom. It further puts the focus on us to deliver what our users really want.”

"It is a matter of pride that the industry is trying to build an equivalent of Zoom."
Sameer Raje

While there has been no marketing in India, Zoom does run campaigns globally, which mostly include print, OOH (like airports, cabs) and digital advertising.

"We are spreading more via recommendations and word of mouth, instead of marketing."
Sameer Raje

Raje says that the secret behind Zoom’s rapid and widespread adoption is the platform’s ease of use. “Why else would our users go ga-ga about the platform? We are spreading more via recommendations and word of mouth, instead of marketing. Our enterprise customers are coming to us, even when our rivals are providing free services,” he adds.

On social usage, Raje says, “There has been quite a change in the usage pattern. We are seeing a lot of social usage, which we had not anticipated. People are using it for social purposes, like family get-togethers, evening parties and even getting married on Zoom. I’ve received messages saying, ‘I got married on Zoom and I’ll remember the platform for the rest of my life’.”

However, Zoom’s ride to glory has been accompanied by a few major bumps. Its success has led to the creation of the new phrase 'Zoom-bombing', a situation where uninvited participants intrude into private meetings and post objectionable content, thereby putting a question mark on the app’s security features.

Last month, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) flagged the security features of Zoom, and released a couple of advisories with guidelines for safe usage. It is reported that the government also issued a challenge to Indian startups to come up with a 'Made in India' alternative to Zoom. When a country's government red flags a service, it could have serious repercussions on adoption and growth.

Raje's response, “There were two advisories. The first one talks about the best practices of conducting meetings. The second was about certain vulnerabilities on the platform. These were fixed. Unfortunately, the advisories were negatively portrayed in the market and the industry. The MHA advisory never said that Zoom is not safe, it mentioned the best practices.”

"Unfortunately, the advisories were negatively portrayed in the market and the industry."
Sameer Raje

“Luckily, most of our customers are enterprise grade customers, who not only raised questions, but also said that they had already done their due evaluations. Although most of them raised questions, but they never really doubted us. We are not only getting across to users, but also to governments, and are trying to share the exact truth and facts about the platform (like tech architecture, privacy, security, etc.) and what steps we have taken. I’m sure that like in countries where the governments went back and revised their advisories (the US, for instance), India, too, will have a relook,” he adds.

However, India is a promising market. With over 40 million SMEs and 50,000-plus startups, the demand for SaaS (software as a service), like Zoom, will only increase. “We have both SMEs and large enterprises coming in on Zoom. Apart from security and privacy, what also matters for large enterprises is, the ability to monitor and service new users, administration, dashboard, usage patterns, ticketing - all of that comes in Zoom’s USP. We’ve got some really large deployments in India. Being a cloud-based platform, we can scale at a rapid space. Also, we operate at a very optimum level. We don’t operate at a 100 per cent, or 70-80 per cent of the capacity,” Raje signs off.

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