I’m video calling Vishal from the Stockholm office a foggy Tuesday morning, and he can literally see the rain pouring down behind me. It’s midday in Mumbai, India, and Vishal’s in his two-bedroom apartment, from where he works his magic. It’s a very hot day, he says.
And that makes a smooth transition onto the interesting talk we’re about to have. Even though our globalized world is fantastic in the sense that we get to communicate with people across the globe, geographical location still acts as a common denominator, impacting our daily lives in so many ways.
Launched on Android by V-Star Labs just over a month ago, Cityscape is a local social network with a lean concept and a clear market demand. Users tell the app where they live (or they just use the maps current location feature), and what area they want to be covered, and based on that information, the app provides users with geographically tailored newsfeeds.
“The idea with V-Star Labs is to build multiple things that we care about. Our mission is just: making lives better.”
The lack of a great platform for connecting with your neighborhood was the initial incentive for this project. “You have Facebook and various instant messaging apps for connecting with friends, family and even colleagues, but there really isn’t anything exciting out there for your local area,” Vishal says. “There are a lot of reasons to connect. You might want to report or ask about something, finding a good plumber, or getting the latest updates about a robbery.”
He explains how these things are too small to get in the local newspaper, but still something you want to be involved with. “For instance, there’s an ongoing festival in India called Ganesh Chaturti, and we’re seeing a lot of people starting to share greetings. You know, happy this happy that!”.
Vishal sees people that are now willing to open up, thanks to the geographical connection. “They know that the audience is the people around them”, he says.
Defining the typical user is still in working progress. “At first, we had an idea that people who generally likes to socialize with their locals would be our primary target, but actually, we found that the ones who don’t like it prefer being active in the app – it’s comfortable way for them to engage too. And compared to, say Facebook, our users can stay anonymous.”
Vishal tells me it was a tough decision to allow user anonymity, but that the feature was much needed. ”This is related to why we use Sinch.”
Cityscape is using Sinch Phone Verification, and Vishal has found a way to combine security with user privacy without compromising one or the other. He often gets the question “if you wanna stay anonymous, how can you authenticate?”. His answer is creating throwaway user accounts “behind the scenes”, so that anyone can comfortably download and browse around in the app. “This is one of our key features, and we’re calculating rough locations, not exact addresses.”
However, if users want to post stuff, they need to be verified. “We do this to avoid spam. Your number will of course remain private but you will get a public checkmark next to your user name, saying that you are a verified user.”
Vishal found Sinch through a classic Google search as he was browsing for a service to substitute Twitter Digit. “We started with integrating the free Twitter SDK, but it wasn’t reliable. The infrastructure in India is all segmented – there are now federal or country level telecommunications infrastructure. Every state has their own, and SMS only works in some.”
So instead, Vishal and his team turned to Sinch, enabling Flash Calling when SMS Verification is glitchy.
“I assumed you were in the US, because everyone’s there.”
As Vishal and his team is familiar with the third-party verification solutions, integrating with Sinch was a no-brainer. “The signup process is easy, and the website and the documentation is good”, he said. He continues comparing Sinch with Twitter, and tells me that “with Twitter, you get very little control of the UI”. He really likes the flexibility and simplicity with the Sinch way, he says. I tell him that we do want our developers to create and expand on their own, and that we simply want to allow as much creativity as possible.
“You guys are very passionate.”
“Another thing I like is; you guys seem very committed! Sinch is not doing a hundred things, like Twitter. For them, this is a side project and they don’t really care if the service is down. Sinch is really helpful for a business like ours”.
Vishal himself is a passionate techie. With a background in tech, and a former employment as Director of Engineering for Mobile, transforming Ask.com from the Silicon Valley office, he’s returned to India in 2014, to start building his startup. Vishal is the founder of Cityscape and V-Star Labs, and he tells me he’s bootstrapped the company to his savings.
The company is small, with only three people working full-time, but that doesn’t stop them from aiming high. Vishal is planning on going back to the U.S. in November, to look at the opportunities for funding, as well as educating people about the potential of the app and India’s immature tech market.
He explains how the platform is simple to scale, due to automatically segmented posts, enabled by default distance calculations. “Scaling concerns two components,” he says. “First, it’s about the product and the technology, which is not really a worry of ours. Then there’s the marketing – testing the ground, and understanding the local environment. We’d like to test launch in the U.S. or in Europe. That involves a lot of research, but I feel confident launching in the U.S. since I’ve lived there for almost 14 years. Launching in another country is definitely on the roadmap.”
The team haven’t put much effort into marketing, since they’re aiming for a slow but steady growth, focusing on iterating and improving the app. “The thing we’ve learned so far is that there’s definitely an interest in what we’re trying to do. So the next step is keep on listening to our users.”
And yeah, listening to our users is something we really enjoy doing too. I ask Vishal to sum up Sinch in a sentence, based on his experience with us:
“You’re a very design focused company tackling an old problem with a new approach. I like that!”
Before hanging up, we speak a little bit about the weather again. Vishal says that if he was in Stockholm today, he’d probably want to wear a knitted sweater and sip on a cup of tea all day. If I was in Mumbai, I surely wouldn’t.
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