From offering group SMS services to businesses to becoming the world’s leading conversational technology platform, Silicon Valley start-up Gupshup has come a long way in the past 17 years.
Founder and CEO Beerud Sheth calls it a “roller coaster ride”. “The first 10 years were really difficult. With the advent of WhatsApp, we pivoted from a mobile group messaging service to a conversational technology platform,” Sheth said during a video chat with e4m.
In April 2021, Gupshup raised a $100 million Series F round, a decade after its Series E round in 2011, and acquired the “unicorn” status. The company has expanded to nearly 40 countries, including the US, India and countries in Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the African continent.
What was in Beerud Sheth’s mind when he set up Gupshup, and how has conversational engagement evolved over the past two decades?
“When we started off in 2007, the mobile revolution was unfolding. Millions of people were connecting digitally for the first time. At that time, short messaging service (SMS) was the lowest common denominator to reach out to users. We leveraged the power of SMS to deliver business messages. We created a consumer service that worked similar to Twitter, but through SMSes. However, we could not monetise it,” Sheth explains.
Then he pivoted the model from business to consumer (B2C) to business to business (B2B). In 2013, the company launched its messenger app. It didn’t work either. In the next few years, FB Messenger, WhatsApp, and many other communication apps landed in the market. By that time, unsuccessful experiments and innovations had prepared the Gupshup team for a better future. It quickly partnered with WhatsApp to offer chatbots to businesses to communicate with their customers.
Today, Gupshup provides tools (like chatbots) to more than 45,000 businesses to allow them to converse with customers through preferred channels like SMS, Voice, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Video, and Telegram, and allows them to shop and transact too.
Sheth says, “Large banks, ecommerce and travel companies have millions of consumers. Until a few years ago, all their communications were on SMSes. Now, it is being shifted to WhatsApp and Instagram. It is no longer a one-way communication. Now, consumers can interact with the businesses, shop, converse and even seek support.”
“There are a lot of opportunities and growth in this segment. Consumers and even many enterprises in countries like India and Brazil may not use web or apps but they do have WhatsApp. Whatsapp is the lowest common denominator of conversational messaging in emerging markets like India,” he noted.
On AI in B2C communication
The entry of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled conversational marketing has helped brands reach wider customer segments, says Sheth.
“For businesses, which receive millions of such messages, AI, natural language processing and voice technology are needed to understand what the user is asking and then recommend the right items. AI helps businesses build delightful channels that automate the responses to queries and escalate the ones that need human intervention.”
On new growth drivers
In an acquisition spree, Gupshup acquired over half-a-dozen companies (OneDirect, AskSkid, Active.Ai, Dotgo and Knowlarity Communications) in the last eight-nine months.
“The acquisitions have helped us expand our capabilities. We are the only company now which can offer all the toolkits of messaging, voice, chatbots, and conversation platforms across languages. We have the most advanced and comprehensive products,” Sheth claimed.
Gupshup listens to consumers, invests a lot in R&D to develop innovative solutions and focuses on international expansion, he added. “We may explore more acquisitions but nothing is on cards as of now.”
Gupshup is currently working on developing voice capabilities such as voice deflection that helps redirect messages to an expert bot.
“We are integrating call centres with voice bots to provide chatbot experiences. We are trying to help businesses engage consumers and enable ecommerce through a digital store or mobile app. We are also working on developing chatbots that resolve complaints and convert them into testimonials to manage brand reputation and customer satisfaction. Chatbots are going to become the primary means of digital communication with consumers,” Sheth tells, explaining his team’s ongoing innovation work.
Emerging B2C communication platforms
Sheth names RCS, Google Business Message (GBM) and Gupshup’s own platform GIP as some of the emerging B2C communication platforms. “Each of these platforms has different features, capabilities and price points. Multiple channels allow consumers to deliver rich communication,” he explains.
When asked about the difference between the US and Europe in terms of emerging markets communication platforms, he said, “The US and EU countries have a web-centric ecosystem. All transactions and conversations on e-commerce are done through the web. Even in mobile communication, users are eventually diverted to the web. In emerging markets like India and Brazil, there is no web-centric ecosystem. More people are on the messaging app WhatsApp than on the web.”
How to remain profitable?
At a time when many Unicorns are facing a downturn, how does Gupshup remain profitable? “Firstly, we have been profitable for 10 years despite all ups and downs in the market. We built those muscles which helped us to sustain, we invested in areas that matter the most and never got carried away while recruiting. We never hired in bulk,” Sheth noted.
“First-time entrepreneurs often spend a lot. If you are not careful, then spending can go out of hand. Being mature, commonsensical and thoughtful helps. As a business, you can invest ahead of the market, sometimes it takes time to grow but you have to analyze everything before spending even if you are a Unicorn. Once a Unicorn, not always a Unicorn.”
Mantra for aspiring entrepreneurs
The start-up journey can be a roller coaster. You should be customer-centric, and figure out your market fit. Yet, you need a lot of perseverance. Gupshup's journey was a long one. The first 12-14 years were very challenging. It's not by choice, you have to be persistent.
Be entrepreneurial, take a chance. Entrepreneurship is the ultimate tool for the advancement of any society. If you attempt to do something and fail, you can still be hired by some companies. If you succeed, it would be a complete game changer. Odds are more in your favour.