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KhaaliJeb co-founder: ‘We were devastated, we had to reinvent’

In a conversation with indianexpress.com, KhaaliJeb co-founder Prakash Kumar speaks on how 'reinventing' is the only mantra to startup success.

Written by Mehab Qureshi | Pune |
January 28, 2022 1:23:19 pm
KhaaliJeb is a payment and banking app for students and youth. (Photo: KhaaliJeb)

An empty pocket would be the last name you want to call a payment wallet app. But that is exactly what KhaaliJeb means. The UPI-based online payment service caters primarily to students and became widely popular pre-covid, on-boarding 500+ restaurants and salons for discount programmes.

Hit by the Covid-19 induced lockdowns, KhaaliJeb app sank in number of downloads and their ratings dropped drastically to 1 star on Google Play store. However, the app soon started reinventing itself like a lot of other pandemic-hit businesses.

In a conversation with indianexpress.com, KhaaliJeb co-founder Prakash Kumar speaks on how ‘reinventing’ is the only mantra to startup success. Edited excerpts:

How did the name come about? What does the app exactly do? 

Prakash Kumar: “The name ‘KhaaliJeb‘ struck when one of the co-founders jested listening to the idea for the first time: “Sab KhaaliJeb chalengein! (Everybody will walk around with empty pockets).”

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“KhaaliJeb is essentially a membership-based discount programme, where students and youths enjoy special discounts and deals from 100+ brands across categories. It is a member only platform for students below age 29. We make payments and banking simple, fast, and extra rewarding for this segment. With UPI on KhaaliJeb, you could make payments directly from your bank account to your friends or any merchants accepting UPI.”

How did the idea kick off?

Prakash Kumar: “It was early 2015 and I was heading to my hometown. Ola Cabs was recently launched in Patna. I booked an Ola and the whole payment experience was so smooth and seamless, it made me question – why can’t this be everywhere? It seemed more fascinating, perhaps because I was completely ignorant of the digital payment developments around the world during that time. When I returned to college (IIIT-Allahabad), I discussed the idea with Aman, Wilson, and Sudhanshu and they joined in as co-founders.”

“Targeting students wasn’t something premeditated. The story goes back to October, 2016. We were in KFC, we saw a box with a message, ‘Drop your business card for exciting discounts’. Intrigued, I asked the cashier if they give student discounts too on ID cards? He replied: ‘You should ask the company’ and that is when I sensed a mammoth business opportunity.”

“We had around 32,000 downloads pre-covid. Although we developed a great app in terms of UI/UX, we couldn’t market the app and failed miserably. During the last few months pre-covid, we had started achieving a decent growth rate of 30 per cent month-on-month, and then the pandemic happened. We had 7,000 monthly active users back then. And executed around 1 lakh transactions.”

How have the frequent lockdowns impacted your business model?

Prakash Kumar: “Back then, our Discount Programme was live only in Bangalore amongst 500+ Restaurants and Salons. It was not yet launched for online brands. The Youth Discount programme, the most important feature of our app, our major customer acquisition channel, was totally dependent on restaurants and salons. All our hard work, countless hard-hitting negotiations, thousands of rushed bike rides to onboard the merchants, all our efforts were in vain when the pandemic happened. The lockdown was announced and all the restaurants and salons were closed. The decline was too steep, direct. There were zero transactions in the discount programme”.

“The pandemic impacted our UPI transactions too and there was no growth at all… after a point our banking partner could not support us anymore. Despite designing a great product, we failed abysmally. We had put a lot of effort and waited for too long to go live on UPI. Customers started uninstalling the app and we got a lot of one-star reviews. We had planned many offline marketing activities, which couldn’t be executed due to the crisis. We were back to zero, where we had started four years back. It was heartbreaking. We were devastated.”

So how did you re-invent yourself and your business model?

Prakash Kumar: “Reinventing was the only chance that we had to take, finding a new banking partner for UPI was going to be a time consuming and extremely challenging process for an early-stage startup like us. So, it wasn’t an option for us. As restaurants and salons were shut during the lockdown, we thought to build the discount programme for online brands and make it live pan India. We onboarded 100+ online brands during the pandemic like Swiggy, Cult.Fit, Udemy, Flipkart, MX Player, Bewakoof, Jockey, etc.”

Reinventing the KhaaliJeb app. (Photo: KhaaliJeb)

“As soon as we saw results, we didn’t stop then. So, we thought of another idea to simplify payments among friends. For students and youths, the majority of the payments are group expenses. And it’s a real hassle to manage such expenses. We added a functionality where young Indians can easily record, track, and settle expenses with friends. We have designed this feature considering the Indian way of managing expenses with friends.”

“The UX is super easy and fun to use. We even launched a B2B product ‘Verify by KhaaliJeb’ that helps brands in verifying their student customers running discount campaigns for them. Suppose a brand wants to run an exclusive discount campaign only for students on their own app or website. For identifying their customers as students, they can integrate KhaaliJeb Verify with the help of simple APIs. Their student customers can upload the ID from the brand’s website or app. We verify the ID within minutes using technology and manually with the help of our agents. Then the verified students can claim deals from the brand.”

“We are nearing 100k downloads on Google Play Store and now are back to a 30 per cent month-on-month growth. Our monthly active users are 20,000+ and we have executed 4 lakh+ transactions. We have on-boarded 100+ youth focused brands across categories, offering special deals and discounts to our users.”

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