For the past few years, our country witnessed some major transformation across different sectors. Currently, the monthly active smartphone users in India are expected to be 696 million as compared to 463 million in 2019. That indicates a penetration of more than 50%.
In this rapidly growing digital space, millions of users don’t know how to conveniently use the internet. In a bid to make their lives easier, this AI-based conversational platform is making e-commerce a cakewalk for rural users.
In conversation with The Electronics, Sachin Jaisawal, CEO and Co-founder Niki.ai explained how Niki is making the lives of millions of new age internet users easier. Excerpts from the exclusive conversation:
Q: What is Niki.ai and how is it promising to help businesses across different sectors?
A: Niki.ai is India’s first voice- and vernacular-enabled e-commerce platform. The macro trends indicate it’s an untapped opportunity. Around 60% of the 696.77 million Internet users in India are hesitant to make a transaction or direct order over the Internet because of language or dialect barriers. The UX is another barrier as many users don’t know how to use the keyboard or how to actually use voice commands.
Niki is an alternative commerce platform that mimics the offline experience of the user. You can talk to Niki. Niki.ai is your own local assistant which makes it comfortable for users to make transactions in their native language.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Niki.ai?
A: I always felt that our generation is very fortunate that we witnessed the technology revolution and we were fortunate enough to grow around gadgets and know how the internet actually works. But what about our elderlies and the countless others who aren’t aware of the basics of how the internet works. Just for instance, my own mother earlier didn’t buy anything online as she was skeptical. Now, with Niki, she can do anything over the internet.
In any colloquial conversation, people are used to talking in multiple languages – whether Hindi, English, any other mother tongue, or a combination of languages. This realisation prompted us to make the conversational AI platform easy and colloquial.
Q: What are the specializations and services that you offer across your platform?
A: Niki.ai is India’s first voice- and vernacular-enabled e-commerce platform. Using Niki, users can enjoy the digital shopping experience in the convenience of their own language. There is no need to type also. Users can use their voice to place the order. In short, Niki is your personal local agent that will help you with everything you want to do over the internet.
Q: Please tell us about your formative years? What were the challenges that you faced during the app’s inception?
A: When I started Niki along with Keshav Prawasi, Nitin Babel, and Shishir Modi, we wanted to make sure that no user, no matter from which part of India they belong, is left behind. The first version of the product that we built, users did not like it. They were confused and we did not know what we were doing wrong at all. It was actually a blessing in disguise as it helped us pivot from our model to a better sustainable model. In long sessions of deciding what will work for Niki, we realised the pain points users face and started working towards creating a model to rectify it.
We also ran into problems early on due to limited data availability, especially in Indic languages and good Machine Learning solutions portable to Indian languages. Therefore, we took an early call to build our own in-house technology stack, including our Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine and Dialog Management engine, to drive conversations with the users. We have been blessed with some really great mentors and investors who helped us in this journey. After we realized that we should get mentorship, it all change
Q: How has the pandemic impacted your business? Is there a positive shift towards more businesses adopting AI?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic came as a blessing in disguise for us. There came a demand for a platform where users can shop for basic essentials daily. Our model supported that and we expanded our ration operations into 160 cities during the pandemic from just 3 before it. We ensured that conversational AI and chats were simplified for essential household needs.
The major differentiator that the users felt was that they could talk to Niki just like how they talk to a shopkeeper to get tasks done – by speaking just one sentence to Niki. (example: ‘recharge my number with three months validity plan’).
Q: What is the kind of tech involved in the functioning of Niki? Anything new you are planning to try out?
A: Niki’s services heavily rely on AWS storage (Dynamo, RDS, S3 etc) and services (SNS, SQS etc) to achieve larger scale and higher performance, which eventually helps to support growth. The system runs complex NLP and ML operations to better understand the user’s intent across multiple languages, and uses PubNub to deliver Niki’s responses to user’s devices with extremely low latencies. This simplifies and speeds up the entire user experience.
We run our Platform by users and further implement technological investments upon receiving feedback. This helps the team to experiment with multiple micro MVPs simultaneously and get real feedback from users in a quick time frame. Niki’s platform is operational in four Indian languages and will be adding seven more languages in the next 12 months.
Q: What is the funding status of the company? What are the numbers you reported for FY20 and Q1 of FY21?
A: We have completed our funding rounds with investors like Mr Ratan Tata and US Fintech VC fund EMVC. Q4 of FY20 brought a significant rise for us and we reported a revenue of ₹140 crores with over one million transactions. As for FY21, we are looking at ₹540 crores.
Q: What are the future plans for Niki.ai?
A: Now we are more focused towards the customer pain points and that reflect on the business. We are more focused in understanding what is the macro opportunity to look for, if it figures out and shows up in the business. The aim is to take e-commerce to people in deeper geographies that have connectivity issues and people are loathed to download many apps due to bandwidth constraints and limited usage of the smartphone. All of our business comes from tier-3, tier-4 cities where users actually need a platform like Niki. We want to be present in all those locations as soon as we can.
Q: How much percentage of human work will bots replace, especially with customer communication?
A: Support and assistance work can be completely taken over by a bot. I personally believe in the coming years, humans will employ bots to do all the menial work to maintain operations so that the actual work requiring the creative brain can be left for humans.