Episode 19 Future of Brands in Web 3.0 with Akshay, Schbang

On our first episode of Thoughtcast by Onething Season 3, Divanshu is joined by Akshay Gurnani, the co-founder of Schbang. The conversation takes place with the footings of how metaverse is now settling its place in the ‘phygital world’. The further discussion culminates in the process of letting the users understand the need for web 3.0, metaverse, and more such technologies in their lives and how these technologies are going to be the future of the internet. Catch this futuristic conversation from people working in the industry themselves, on this episode of Thoughtcast by Onething.

Episode Transcript

We can be anything inside the metaverse. Digital is moving in a different direction. And 3.0 is built around the decentralization of data of ownership. Like I’m actually imagining in the future where you have, say, 15 Metaverses converging.

[Divanshu]
Hey, everyone. Welcome to an all-new season of Thoughtcast by Onething. This is an all-new season with fresh conversations, and great people to learn from. In this season, we’re bringing people who will help shape the future of the internet and bring conversations, which will change the way we use the internet forever.

You know, to start off with Metaverse, web 3.0, which is one of the hottest topics. Let’s understand how brands and products will be able to use NFTs, Metaverses, etc. in their day-to-day operations, in the physical world, in the virtual world. How will the transition happen?

So for this conversation, we thought of bringing in Akshay Gurnani who is the co-founder of Schbang and has helped thousands of brands in the digital space and the physical world. And now he’s all set to bring the brands to the “phygital” world and web 3.0, as we call it.

Before we dig into this conversation, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Spotify and Apple. We’re also live on YouTube from the season onwards.

Hey, Akshay, Welcome to Thoughtcast. And thank you for doing this with me. I mean, I’ve been following your journey and I’m so happy to be here again. The studio, I think I came here about four years ago. And right before the lockdown also, and I think I just saw 250 people on the floor.

And last time we met, it felt like it was x4. You’ve been like blazing all guns, man. Tell me more about it. How did this whole journey happen? I’d love to know more about this man.

[Akshay]
It was back in 2011 when social media marketing was very nascent in a country like India. Of course, the best was adopted by Facebook and Twitter back then. Those were the only two platforms that we had.

But, when I joined the agency side, in 2011, we were still trying to understand where is the industry moving? How are brands going to adopt digital going forward? And I think I was very lucky to be in a space that was growing an industry that was actually growing and very nascent fairly.

So, I joined another company back then and there were about eight people. I didn’t know much about where the industry was moving towards. Okay. Let’s try and see where it goes. You know, I was fortunate to have grown with the agency because the industry was going back in the day. I spent two years in Bombay handling a bunch of brands over here and doing content.

You know, I grew up to become a group account manager and then I moved to Gurgaon. And that’s how we happened to meet as you were my client back then. And I’m grateful for the time, the two years I spent in Gurgaon as well. I think that was a good learning experience for me in terms of how to grow teams, how to build a brand, and specifically how to understand a culture in a different city altogether.

And being from Bombay, Gurgaon for me was like, I was a complete fish out of water. I had no idea what hit me that the day I landed in Gurgaon, I’m like, shit, what is happening? Right. Like it’s a different culture altogether, but those two years were great. I learned a lot.

And for me, I always wanted to evade the MBA. I didn’t want to go out and do the MBA. Typically how most people want to do that in their journeys. I said, okay, fine. Let me try entrepreneurship because it might give me the confidence of doing something on my own. And I might end up learning a lot more doing my own, you know, venture what probably an MBA might not teach me can actually come through my learnings in my own journey.

Then back in 2014 is when me and my two partners, Harshil and Zoheb, we moved out from the previous agency and we got together and finally started Schbang.

So, 2015 January is when we incorporated Schbang. We were fortunate to start working with a few key brands, right in the beginning. But then our first big entry came with Godrej.

Coming to your question about, how the past few years have been in terms of exponential growth. I think, fortunately or unfortunately, I would say that lockdown has been pretty kind to us in that sense. And you know, I think brands have been adopting digital, a lot more. The kind of spending that actually comes on to digital as a platform is increased manifold.

We’re hoping the next couple of years digitally will overtake even, TV and print in terms of overall spending. So we’re riding a wave right now in terms of, seeing how we can really grow these brands and, acquire more clients onto our roster. And you know, as the h an capital business, the more brands you acquire, the more people you’ve got to hire to actually service those.

So, we’ve acquired many new brands in the past. I mean, two, and a half years, because of the lockdown specifically and which is why we had to hire enough people to manage these brands. Today we’re about 900 people across M bai, Bangalore, and Delhi.

[Divanshu]
Digital is becoming mainstream now. I mean, there’s no two ways about it. So there are two angles to this and probably in the entire spectr now, and you’re playing an entire spectr . One is creation, and then there is, taking it out to the market and you kind of are playing in the spectr , pretty evenly.

Now, what I want to understand from you is, and from the brand that you’ve worked with, We as an organization, work with products more. We work with transactional platforms and products where the teams that we interact with, have a clear understanding of what products are, right. I mean, for them a website is a website. For the product, they know that it translates into certain metrics, which are different from a marketing website.

Now in your scenario, I’m sure you would be working with a lot of brand managers and marketing managers. And brands now are building their own products also, right. They want to compete with newly weighed startups, and modern tech and they want to bring their users and own their users on those platforms.

So, in your point of view, how do you think the brands today are understanding the role of products? The role of UX, UI design, and merging marketing with it. Because they don’t have product managers, the marketing managers are running the products.

How do you see that transition happening within the brand?

[Akshay]
So, I think the good part of today’s brand managers, many of them actually come from the agency side. They’ve learned, and understood the importance of consumers on the digital platforms, in terms of consumer experience, and consumer journeys. And they become more mindful about how the consumers need to transact with the brand online.

Again, your point is right there in terms of, you know, brands going to actually create their own product comes from the mindset that I need to own the data of the consumer at the end of the day, because we know we’re moving towards a cookieless world and, you know, data is more important than oil and more valuable in oil.

In those, all those different kinds of terminologies, they keep hearing. But yeah, Clients are understanding the importance of actually harnessing and owning the consumer data. And that can only come through if you have a good consumer experience. This is where clients are very mindful about how the consumer is having a good experience, not just on the social platform, but also moving them on to a web experience or an app, for example, and having the same kind of an experience there as well.

[Divanshu]
True. I think I picked up from what you just said. When we started, UX education was the thing. We had to tell product managers and brand managers what UX is. Then there was a division, which obviously like you guys were handling the marketing and, or their internal stakeholders were handling the marketing.

Suddenly there is a unified need for improving CX. This is great because it brings marketing teams and product teams together and the customer is the winner, right? We are not focusing on one touchpoint. We’re multi-faced and there are multiple touchpoints that we are converging into one single experience, which we today call CX and not UX or marketing or product or anything altogether.

I mean, we are trying to connect everything into one experience. Right. But, you know, it’s funny that you reach a stage, and then there is a new technology, there’s a new era that comes in.

I mean, thanks a lot to the last two years of COVID. Digital is moving towards a different direction and web 3.0 that we all keep talking about from CX to experiences And I think things are moving towards immersive.

So what is your perspective on it? Like where do you see things moving for brands for users per se?

[Akshay]
Specifically around 3.0?

[Divanshu]
Like Brand and 3.0, if you have to call it this way.

[Akshay]
So then 3.0 is a very broad spectrum of what is Possibility with 3.0? Of course. 3.0 is built around decentralization of data of ownership, where the ownership rests with the end consumer, which means that as a consumer, I have control over what I’m sharing and how much I want to share as well.

And build on 3.0, there can be a lot of, you know, there’s a blockchain that comes into play, NFTs that come into play, the metaverse that comes into play. So as a concept, 3.0 is extremely exciting because it unlocks a lot of different opportunities for brands to actually create experiences and create content on these different touchpoints.

So, to broadly talk about certain things that we can do with our brands have been econ 3.0, when it comes to building NFTs or building a metaverse, for example, the easiest barrier to entry is getting a brand into a metaverse right. You already have these built-out ecosystems where people are virtually interacting. And again, 3.0 is a lot about communities, right? That’s one of the keywords that come with 3.0 is ‘community building’. That if you can find like-minded individuals coming together for a unified cause where 3.0, sort of really builds out from there. Right?

So, coming to the metaverse, you know, actually getting brands into metaverse again, there are few popular metaverses already built out like a de-central land. For example, where you can go and buy a plot of land and you can build on that, you can build on the particular blockchain could be Solana and it could be. There for example, and then having an experience inside the building that you’ve created where people can come and transact. Right?

So it’s people coming inside of the virtual world and experiencing virtual art as well. So there are a few ways in which brands are trying to utilize that. And you’ve seen a win, you know, Pepsi region recently launched their entire NFT collection. It’s a microphone actually, which has 50 different attributes on it.

Budweiser has a bunch of their older cans being sold as NFTs in terms of art as well. , so virtue selling becomes one integral part of the entire 3.0 journey where you can create communities around art, around music. And getting people together to actually unified, you know, the interest, the experience online. Today, many metaverses are being built out, even say a dating metaverse.

So, people who are interested in dating, like imagine taking a Tinder or Bumble into the metaverse wherein instead of me talking or chatting on an app, I’m literally seeing the person as an avatar inside the metaverse and talking to them face-to-face.

So, even though I’m sitting in a different city, it sort of broadens my geographical horizon of meeting people across the country as well. Now, talking to them, seeing them, having discussions, likes and dislikes, going on a virtual coffee date, inside the metaverse as well.

Recently, a couple got married in the Metaverse as well. A lot of fun and funny things are happening. But I think the big question to answer is there, what is the end utility we are trying to give to the end consumer.

Of course, up until now, there has been vanity and a lot of PR-able ideas, but eventually, we’ve got to find a reason to build out the NFT or to build out the metaverse to give the consumer an experience that actually adds value to his life. Uh, I think that’s it just broadly as to what we’re seeing in the 3.0 space and sort of building out.

I think even the blockchain as a concept in itself, it’s so strong that, you know, really imagine not having to have any doc ents now. Right. I remember when I was trying to look at investing in some land, I had to go through so many different papers and try to find the buyer, the previous buyers. I imagine all of this was built on the blockchain, no one can mess with the blockchain. It is completely transparent.

The record’s going to be lost, the paper’s going to be lost. It’s all built out so seamlessly that, you know, it adds value using the blockchain for the actual need that I don’t need physical paper anymore. The entire transaction can be built on the blockchain. So I think there are some exciting ideas that we can explore for sure.

I mean, in your experience, our clients are also asking about 3.0.

[Divanshu]
It’s funny. Yes. I think since the time Facebook announced Meta, they’re moving in a different direction and all that. We’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of customers around it, but especially in India, everybody is kind of holding onto taking that first step.

And I think somewhere because it’s a world which is new. it’s a world that has a lot of technical jargon around it. Complex words like web 3.0, metaverse, and NFTs. It’s just overwhelming. So everybody’s kind of holding on to their next steps and it has just been a waiting game.

But I think if you know, companies like us, companies like yours can help improve or not improve, actually simplify the jargon, make it more utilitarian, then, throwing heavy words at the customers.

I think we can actually form or at least increase the pool of early adopters. And that’s where I think we are thinking of moving, to simplify this whole world for people who want to dock, but they just, you know, standing right at the cliff.

And that’s what we are here for. My reason for being in Bombay today, if you’ve heard about JP Morgan is opening a metaverse bank, we’re doing a POC with the large bank in India to open a metaverse bank. Right. It’s a story that everybody wants to go after. Utilitywise, I think it’d be great if there can be a certain adaptation.

Like, do you think there is a certain bit of traction that is coming at your end?

[Akshay]
Yeah. Clients have been asking us, what can we do more? So, where we are in our journey with the client is that we also educate them. Doing like a newsletter, for example, we are creating training decks for our clients as well.

And the good thing is that the clients themselves ask and say tell me more, how do I get into this now? What can I do?

So, our aim is to first educate. Because education right now, as you mentioned is extremely low. The concepts are extremely jargoning right now. And people aren’t able to fathom that, because they are like,

“Anyway my life is so complicated. On top of that, you are putting me inside another world where I need to buy clothes also, there I need to buy care also, you know, buy fuel for my car, inside the metaverse. Why do I need all of that stuff?”

Right. So trying to simplify these things for them and let them know the possibilities. And of course, you know, every brand need not be doing everything. You can pick and choose what makes the most amount of sense, right?

Like you can do like a limited edition drop with NFTs inside of metaverse, which makes sense. It could be like a short-term drop and it need not be a sustained conversation for, say, three years, it could be like a two-week activity you do. Sell some art, sell some limited edition shirts, clothes, whatever and move out of it.

But then you can do that every quarter, every year, or whatever, or maybe you can build out an experience where customers can come and do a virtual try-on for clothes, or maybe, they can meet with brand ambassadors inside the metaverse. Right? One idea which we had is that, since many brands of ours have brand ambassadors for the brand, can we do a meet and greet inside the metaverse?

Where you’d literally be sitting across the table with a category-A celebrity, having a conversation with the guy sitting in his plush bungalow in Bandra, and your customers sitting across the country, and they have a round table inside the metaverse discussing things. You can probably do a dance together.

So we were in fact, building something with the IPL, you can play stone-paper-scissors with Virat Kohli or you can do the car running game against Dhoni. So building out these immersive experiences becomes a very important part of it. So right now we’re educating clients and trying to build out a few use cases.

I think once clients see it, they believe it. They understand what it means, but in theory, becomes very difficult to explain to them.

[Divanshu]
In fact, I started using quest three months ago and it was just crazy. The kind of applications you can imagine. Right now, Gen alpha, gen Z, or early adopters playing games and shit on various virtual worlds.

But I think the application is immense. If you immediately think of it, how do you think, you know, that customer segment, which is right now, 12 to 16 years old, which is right now running around and virtual world, how do you think that shift could be from that to say a 16 to 24-year-old or 24 to 30?

What kind of industry would have to come in to build something in the metaverse and adapt this technology to increase that adaption into these users.

[Akshay]
So, I think the Gen-alpha and they are rightly called the “Gen-Alpha’ because they are really the alpha in the room. They know more than, I think, all of us combined.

Typically, when they come to any concepts, new ideas, and technologies, they’re way ahead of the curve. Sometimes when I see my nephew play on the phone, I’m like, how do you know this is at such a young age?

They already understand the concept of blockchain. You understand what cryptocurrencies are. They invest in cryptocurrencies.

So, I think what will really make these conversations mainstream is also when brands get involved. It could be any brand, which has a legacy. When they come, as I start talking about it automatically, they gravitate a lot of their followers to also come and adopt these conversations.

I think for people like us who are millennials, I would say, in a way, I think when some of our much-loved brands and celebrities and the people who we look up to start talking about this, that’s when we will start getting interested in this conversation.

I think it has come from a lot of education of getting some key opinion leaders to start adopting it in their own ecosystems, uh, for us to start getting more interested in, in this space.

But yeah, I think it will be a gradual and educational journey from moving from the Gen-alpha to GenZ towards the end, the millennials to educate them.

But, anyway, the critical mass in India is anywhere your gen Z is right in terms of the size of the population. So in a way, it’s good that the Gen Z’s are adopting these quicker because automatically they start pushing us, old hags to innovate to adopt them quickly?

[Divanshu]
Haha, don’t say that! You’re pushing me into a different category.

[Akshay]
I am talking about 12 year old and 16-year-olds. I think once they start adopting automatically, it motivates us to start thinking in that direction as well. And even the idea of building the metaverse and NFTs have come from the younger guys, saying, “ why don’t we try this? Why don’t we build this out?”

[Divanshu]
Actually, because I think policymakers here, they have to really evolve themselves and understand where we heading, where the world heading and at least match up to that speed or not even match up, you know, be at least 20% on that speed.

We’re very aggressive when it comes to policies around crypto, et cetera. And I don’t want to make this conversation political. But you know, what’s happening on the board. I mean, there is acceptance and then there is complete aggression.

Oh, for brands, what would be the right, uh, way to create a business model in metaverse ot around metaverse?

Right. I mean, they don’t want to invest just because, some of them would, but there has to be an ROI in the future.

[Akshay]
So there are a few things that brands can actually do to monetize.

Right? So one could surely be the NFTs. Because the NFTs become an attribute to give to your avatar as well inside the metaverse. So again, the variables on the body of the avatar, and the possibilities inside the metaphors are exactly what it is in the physical world. We can become anything inside the metaverse.

A hundred and thousand ideas can come over there. But also what brands are asking us is, how can you, at the bottom of the funnel, get conversions, right? So, that becomes very important. Like, can I actually take them onto an e-commerce platform from there and make a purchase like a shampoo, for example?

[Divanshu]
So it’s a phygital experience that we’re creating from virtual, you know, what’s actually happening right now.

[Akshay]
Yeah. If the avatar actually has the user product inside the digital world, then it’s great. Otherwise, you can also make the transaction happen in the physical world and in your physical home as well.

[Divanshu]
Yeah. So in fact, yesterday when I was talking to my team, and obviously, they have creative minds, they keep on experimenting. So I got to know that we are creating five different metaverse environments five different scenarios and how they would look like and all that.

I told them that I’m all kicked. Please show me that stuff because you know, whatever you’re seeing is created by other people right now. But once you create something that is a part of your company or part of your team, it’s just beautiful to experience that. In a low entry point, or low entry barrier, AR would be, I think something that really would encourage the industry to move towards. Because it is very converging, a point where, you know, you don’t have to be inside the metaverse.

You don’t have to use expensive, VR sets and all, but your phones would just do. And you start engaging with that particular world through that.

Have you received some such queries or interest in building AR?

[Akshay]
We have. We’ve actually recently gotten into a network model with a company that builds AI.

So they’ve been up AR partner over the past couple of years now, and we’re getting them onboard into Schbang to build out, you know, experientially our, for our clients.

In fact, one example that comes to mind for me is Lenscart. who would use AR much, much earlier on when it came to virtual try-on for the, you know, glasses.

In fact, I’ve made purchases using the virtual try-ons. Because I had my number, So I just wanted to see how the “look” eventually looks like. I think AR, which is linked to conversion, is very important to have because it can really decide the bottom of the funnel when it comes to making the conversion.

So while you can do all the good branding on the social platforms or across the different media, getting them onto a website, making them the experience they are, and then making the purchase becomes the bottom of funnel conversion. I think that’s a direction in which AI should move towards. And especially, I think what lockdown taught us is that people could not go out of their houses to try on things in a physical brick-and-mortar store.

So can we give them that experience with AR? I think that it is going to be the way forward as well?

[Divanshu]
I think the first step towards the metaverse would be first through AR and then getting completely into the VR experience. And that’s what my belief is because that’s just not limited to gaming right now, because we are right now 90%, 95% in gaming. Right. And that’s what you know, was bringing people to re-look at roadblocks. Look, at any of such platforms it’s around gaming, but AR could solve a few good use cases. And then the entry into, uh, you know, VR would be easier to happen, I guess.

What do you think, you know, now say next, let’s say one year, next week two years, what would be the way you would want the brands to kind of create an efficient entry towards web 3.0 per se?

[Akshay]
We do have a couple of brands who have come to us with a brief for web 3.0 and specifically metaverse. Because of course, there again, youth-oriented brands and they’re talking to the gen Z – millennial kind of audience.

, we’re in fact, doing an entire creator symposi , meeting up inside a metal box. I can’t name the brand though, but, , we’re going to be doing like, you know, influences coming into the metaverse meet up, having conversations, having contests inside there and then, you know, gratifications happening through the metaverse as well.

So again, not naming brands or industries, but we are building on a couple of these exciting projects and looking forward to taking them to life very soon. But again, it’s good that clients are wanting to be the first movers. We have a few brands who are saying let’s try something. Let’s do something, anything.

Of course, right now, the utility is fairly low. It’s a lot of PR-able ideas, but so be it, I guess when you are able to get the more people get to know about the technology they are. Maybe they’ll download, you know, an app like a ‘loca’, which is a metaverse or they’ll get onto a spaceship, for example.

But I think the more adoption that comes in, the more conversations will start happening among friends circles, groups, among families, for example.

[Divanshu]
Well, our thinking, you know, people of various age groups, people are various professions. They’re thinking that, okay, there is something happening and the world is moving in that direction, but that’s great.

But I think for creators as such, the instant bonds per se, it’s a new world for them. And I think they’re the first ones we’ll get onto and creating an economy within the metaverse will drive a lot of things. What do you think about it? I mean, you have so many creators that you talk to.

[Akshay]
I think one form of creators are the guys who are making, who are building that 3D, who are building the core behind it.

And the second creators are the ones who are making content inside the metaverse. And they could be your traditional influencers, who’ve been big on the Tiktok, Instagram, or now they may be entered into a metaverse and I’m sure you’ll have, you know, even influencers inside of metaverse who have a voice who are the ones who are gravitating the most amount of influence inside a particular metaphor as well.

So, yeah. I think it’s a moment of time before we start finding, you know, key influences, even inside a metaverse who I can send my virtual product to saying, “Virtually try karo waha pe and tell your virtual followers how you like it”.

Every time someone views the content or interacts with the influence or the creator in the metaverse, they get paid in a particular crypto coin as well. So suddenly even the influencer is monetizing their time and effort for making content, making engagement inside the metaverse.

And they’re owning a crypto as that payment currency, basically.

[Divanshu]
Unlike what is happening right now. So personal Instagram, it’s only, anyway, it’s only brands driven revenue.

[Akshay]
Exactly. And I can, and because the blockchain is a logic that the platform can build for itself and they can have any logic they want to build into it.

They can create any form of engagement as a money-earning opportunity.

[Divanshu]
No. I think the world is moving in a direction, which is very exciting. Obviously, it is scary for a lot of people, but with the right education with the right knowledge transfer, it will become, I would say less overwhelming and people will be ready to adapt.

You don’t have everybody on web 2.0, also. There are people who don’t use the internet, They’re very bleak users of the internet. Social media has changed it. A small village in Africa would have people making TikTok and Instagram and the entire world watches it.

I think that things will happen within the metaverses and the virtual world. And I think the world will converge very small. I mean, we’ll be able to interact with anybody anywhere, I guess.

[Akshay]

Exactly, you used the word convergence, right?

Like I’m actually imagining in the future where you have say 15 metaverses converging so that you have different niches coming together into one larger ecosystem, like how the earth is built out. Of course, you have countries, you have cities conversion into one large metaverse where everyone is coexisting, converging, living a second life. For example, In case they die in the physical world, but yeah, that’s where I’m guessing the future of the metaverse wouldn’t be a convergence of altogether,

[Divanshu]
Whatever it is. I think I’m happy that we’re part of this digital wave and not only adopters, but you know, the second generation to adopt all these things will be able to drive this particular domain even faster, I guess. I mean, and really I’m looking forward to a lot of good stuff happening in the years to come.

I wish you all the best for this journey and for making Schbang 3.0. And when I saw 2.2 outside, and I thought 3.0, should not be far then, right? Yeah.

[Akshay]
And maybe the next Schbang office will be in the metaverse only.

[Divanshu]
Absolutely man! Why not?

[Akshay]
Why bother to have a physical office and pay rent? At least we’ll have a good space inside, decentralized, and have our 2-acre plot.

[Divanshu]
Have you bought something there?

[Akshay]
I actually haven’t but it was quite expensive. I was checking out the pricing and I went like, “Is it that expensive to buy virtual land?”

[Divanshu]
You live in Bombay? I think you should not talk about land prices at all.

I mean, it’s a great conversation. I think we were able to at least drive some conclusions out of it and some understanding of the domain.

Otherwise, it’s very complex everywhere even though people are trying to simplify it.

[Akshay]
Yeah. I hope these examples actually open up people’s minds to understanding what is the possibility? Because it’s still like a black hole. There’s so much to discover. I hope these examples actually give people a perspective on what is basically possible.

[Divanshu]
Good, man. Thank you so much! Thank you everyone for listening. That was Akshay Gurnani Schbang and we hope you liked the conversation. We’d love you to subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Google, and apple.

And thank you for listening.

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