In 2018, Sairee Chahal decided to wrap up her five-year-old business that raked in revenue to the tune of USD 1.5 million. She was about to pivot to something new, with no revenue model in sight.
It wasn’t a new experience for her as she has made similar jumps in the past. Chahal dived in to, leaving her online job search business behind to start a social media platform exclusively for women.
From 2013 to 2018, Chahal ran Sheroes, a New-Delhi based jobs and career community for women. At its peak, Sheroes claimed 20,000 Indian companies were posting job listings on the platform.
Chahal says in 2013, there were “maybe 10 million women online,” and Sheroes was mostly utilized by internet-savvy users, and most of them were from metropolitan areas. It was only after analyzing the calls received on the company’s community helpline for career advice that Chahal realized, “The demography coming to us was changing, as a large number of women started joining us from tier-2 cities, including women from traditional families who didn’t speak English.”
The growing popularity of WhatsApp coupled with the proliferation of internet connections in smaller cities—due to cheap data plans offered by Reliance Jio—made it possible for nearly 100 million women in India to be on the internet by 2018.
“A lot of women started to realize that the internet can be liberating in the sense that it can give them exposure to new ideas and lots of resources that can be used in their daily lives,” Chahal says. But then there is always trolling and harassment with women as the targets. “We [women] have all received our share of unsolicited dick pics to feel the need of a safe space for us online.”
A 2019 report by Google on gender equity on the internet said 74% of women in India don’t upload or post photos of themselves online as they fear abuse and misuse.
When Sheroes was re-launched in 2018 as a social networking platform for women, Chahal says she made “a big call to make it women only” as it limited their user demography. While Chahal killed her job listings product, she kept the brand name Sheroes for the new social networking platform. Since Sheroes already had women using the platform to find job opportunities, it was easy for her to bring those users to the new platform, where they could feel secure when sharing their lives with like-minded peers.
Building a community
Chahal says since women in India and elsewhere face many challenges in their lives, it was impossible to build an all-encompassing solution. So far, Sheroes has acquired five companies that cater to different problems women encounter, and has integrated them to Sheroes’ app.
“In the last two years we have acquired Maya, a reproductive and health tracker app, as well as Babygogo, a platform for young moms. Before this, we also acquired Love Doctor, which evolved into the Sheroes chat helpline,” Chahal says.
There are three main things that women do on Sheroes: seek advice and counseling about employment, parenting, legal matters, and more; express their creativity through cooking, fashion, or writing; and as a channel for peer-to-peer commerce.
“More than 80% of our users are between 18 to 45 years of age from tier-2 cities who are aspirational micro-entrepreneurs, gig workers, housewives, and college graduates looking for some advice on what to do next,” Chahal says.
Since Sheroes’ users discuss topics such as dating, travel, shopping, and selling handmade products, Chahal has partnered with several brands such as online dating platform Tinder, retail chain Reliance Smart, women-centric travel planner Wovoyage, among many others. Soon, Chahal opened the platform for brands to create their own mini-apps, somewhat similar to what WeChat does in China. It also gave its users the option of creating and moderating their own communities based on any topic they are interested in.
“We have over 2,000 communities by brands, organizations, and individuals on the Sheroes network,” Chahal says. The platform has around 15 million registered users, of which 3.5 million are monthly active users.
With a growing network of women and brands on the platform, Chahal has been testing a few revenue models in the last six months, but says it’s too early for the platform to open up for business as she wants to focus on user experience, create stickiness, and increase the app’s reach. In the last half a year, the company has partnered with multinational companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever.
“We are doing early testing for that, but real monetization will happen after we have around 50 million users,” she says. Chahal is aiming to reach the 30 million mark by next year, and in two years she expects her platform to have 100 million women.
Apart from earning money through sales commission via brand partnerships, the company is also working with a non-banking financial company that will provide short-term micro-loans to women in need of funds for growing their business, traveling, college tuition fees, or other personal reasons.
“We are testing new things like extending small loans starting from USD 100, peer-to-peer transactions, and bringing new financial products for women,” Chahal says.
For the good part of this year, Chahal has been traveling to China to seek new investors. Without revealing how much cash she is looking to raise, Chahal says, “Building a consumer internet product is capital-intensive.” So far, the company has raised USD 4 million from various angel investors, including Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, former Google India managing director Rajan Anandan, Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, and Freshdesk co-founder Girish Mathrubhootam, among others.
While the company is in fundraising mode, it is also passing over a road bump, as a recent report by advocacy group Privacy International says that Sheroes, which acquired women health-focused app Maya and brought on board its 8 million users, has been sharing user information with third-party platforms like Facebook. “The reports are absolutely false, baseless and totally inaccurate. Maya has the highest standards of user privacy and safety,” Chahal told KrASIA.
Sheroes claims to have users in 22 countries, with the majority of its overseas users from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. According to Chahal, there are a million users from Latin America and a small but increasing number from Middle Eastern countries. She says internet usage by women in Middle East, South Asia, Indonesia, Africa, and Latin America have similar usage patterns and they are all using the power of the internet to find better life opportunities.
Chahal believes as more women around the world go online, the need for their own space on the internet is more acute than seeking employment.
“Sheroes is an international product. Unlike other social networking platforms that are only seeking to get users’ content viral, we are aiming to be a functional network.”
This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast and South Asia’s tech startups.