In 2003, Praveen Kumar bought his first mobile phone, as several of his friends already had. But for the 29-year-old schoolteacher from the eastern state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest, to use the device to talk to his friends was inadvisable. “It was very costly,” Kumar says. Each outgoing minute was charged about eight cents, so a 10-minute call cost about as much as the average daily wage at the time. “We didn’t have enough money to say everything on the phone.”

So Kumar’s friends and family members began ringing each other but hanging up before being charged for a call; the resulting missed-call alerts functioned as a kind of code between them. “It was decided in advance,” Kumar says. “We would say, if I’m coming to pick you up, I’ll give you a missed call, and you come out of your house.”

Leaving missed calls in this way — effectively using a mobile phone as a kind of latter-day pager — was a consumer hack that, in the 2000s, before India’s cheap smartphone and data revolution, grew more popular than texting. The missed call emerged in India as a critical means of communication for those who counted every rupee spent on recharge credit. But the practice soon spread, became trendy, and, even as call rates plunged in the 2000s to among the lowest in the world, evolved into a general tool of convenience: a missed call could mean “I miss you,” “Call me back,” or “I’m here.” The fact that the missed call demanded only basic numeric literacy made them accessible to the third of India’s population that was illiterate. In 2008, one study estimated that more than half of Indian phone users were in the habit of calling people with the expectation that they wouldn’t pick up.

Then, just as the missed call became ubiquitous — The Times of India wrote in 2009 of Indians’ marked fondness “for hanging up swiftly” — a company in Bangalore called ZipDial took the tool and transformed it. With a couple of rings to the appropriate ZipDial hotline, customers received automated texts and callbacks that delivered live cricket scores for a big match, a deal on an affordable shampoo, rudimentary on-demand radio for Bollywood songs, or celebrity tweets — content supplied by brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. In exchange, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products.

At a time when less than a tenth of India’s population was online — smartphones were prohibitively expensive, and buying a gigabyte of mobile data, which was glitchy and agonizingly slow outside of major cities, cost the average rural Indian two to three days’ wages — missed calls made information from an otherwise unreachable digital world available with a single dial. Users needed only a feature phone: the kind with a number pad, preloaded with a game of Snake. “For many people, ZipDial was the first connection to the internet,” says Sanjay Swamy, one of the company’s founders and board members.

With the frantic pace of technological change over the past five years, the internet pay wall in India has largely come down. Budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data rates have ensured that half of Indians are online. And missed calls are just about obsolete, their function better served by WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and a welter of e-commerce apps.

ZipDial eventually went the way of the missed calls themselves. The company’s founders anticipated from the beginning that the usefulness of their tool would be outpaced by rapid tech advancements in India. But between 2010, when it launched, and 2016, when it ceased operations, it managed to accumulate 60 million unique users and, at its peak, was servicing over 5 million calls a day. The story of ZipDial — and missed calls — demonstrates not only the speed of change in India but how businesses can try to balance looking after the needs of today’s customers with the inevitable technological advances of tomorrow.

Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Rest of World

The idea of repurposing missed calls for commercial gain came to Swamy, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and his colleague Valerie Wagoner in 2009, during a late-night flight from Delhi to Bangalore. Wagoner, an ambitious ex-eBay employee, had moved to Bangalore from California the previous year to work at mChek, a mobile payments startup headed by Swamy. On the flight, the two were discussing the difficulty of monitoring consumer behavior in India, where over 95% of purchases were made offline and in cash, when they realized there was one method they had overlooked. Many Indian customers were already in the habit of texting “short codes” to advertised numbers to receive offers and information from brands. “It struck me that you could do the exact same thing through a missed call,” Swamy said.

The two soon involved Amiya Pathak, a software engineer who would become ZipDial’s third co-founder. Within a week, Pathak had built a system for linking callers in the offline world to a back end connected to the internet. It was beguilingly simple: a customer would call a hotline, the phone would ring twice and automatically disconnect, and the system would reply within seconds with dynamic content, such as match scores, through a call or texts.

“The beauty of the missed-call behavior was that it was already pervasive,” said Wagoner, who became the company’s CEO. It had become so commonplace as to vex the country’s telecom operators: missed calls clogged up over 30% of phone lines but generated no revenue. 

Most encouraging for ZipDial’s business prospects was that its potential user base was rapidly expanding. India was in the midst of its first mobile phone boom. In five years, from 2006 to 2011, the number of mobile subscriptions had soared from 166 million to nearly 894 million, according to the World Bank — over two-thirds of the country’s population at the time. “People would have mobile phones before they would have bank accounts,” Wagoner said.

It was beguilingly simple: a customer would call a hotline, the phone would ring twice and automatically disconnect, and the system would reply within seconds with dynamic content, such as match scores, through a call or texts.

As a test run for the tool, the three co-founders set up a service during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa to provide updated match scores over text in response to a missed call. It worked smoothly, if inconspicuously, until, one day, the team forgot to update scores, and repeat users flooded them with complaints. “We were kind of doing it as a hobby until then,” Swamy recalled. “We said, my goodness, people actually depend on this service!”

During the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, one of the world’s biggest cricket tournaments, ZipDial broke into the mass market. As in the previous year, Swamy, Wagoner, and Pathak set up a service to update callers about match scores. “It just took off like crazy,” Wagoner says. During the first match, ZipDial ended up processing over 4 million calls in a day.

ZipDial soon fashioned itself to conduct lead-generating marketing campaigns, in which customers would dial the missed-call hotline featured alongside a product on a billboard or TV ad. “Ultimately, at ZipDial, we were trying to solve the offline-to-online connection,” Wagoner says, “to be able to connect customers to the things that they cared about, be that content or products.” That model found success in 2011 with Gillette, ZipDial’s first big customer, with whom it tracked the recipients of 1 million free razor samples in over 10 cities. Over the next two years, ZipDial accrued more than 400 clients, including a parade of Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Disney.

ZipDial’s campaigns easily outperformed social media at the time. By 2013, Gillette had accumulated 2.4 million subscribers through ZipDial, surpassing its 1.63 million Facebook likes. Disney used the platform to reach 2 million subscribers, over 90% of whom didn’t have a Facebook account or mobile internet; incredibly, these subscribers engaged about 13 times per month on average, a figure that would have been unprecedented in developed markets.

Missed calls swiftly replaced SMS-only campaigns as the marketing tool of choice for big brands in India. Noting ZipDial’s success, a number of telecommunications firms, such as VivaConnect and Ozonetel, added missed-call campaigns to their own repertoire, starting in 2010. Between mid-2012 and early 2013, ZipDial’s revenue shot up sixfold, and India’s Economic Times estimated that the missed-call industry was worth 5 billion rupees in total — around $94 million.

The missed call proved to be an astonishingly versatile tool. Patents filed by ZipDial in 2012 and 2015 envision a range of scenarios for its use, some of which, such as missed calls to switch credit cards on and off or exchange business cards between two callers, would remain largely aspirational. Others, such as missed calls to vote for reality show contestants, were realized by ZipDial and its competitors across a number of marketing campaigns.

In 2013, Unilever, which was one of ZipDial’s clients, partnered with its rival Ozonetel to establish an innovative use for the medium: a mobile-based on-demand music service called Kan Khajura Tesan, “the Earworm Station.” To listen to Kan Khajura, residents of Bihar and Jharkhand — Indian states where daily power outages were common, but 80% of households now owned at least one mobile phone set — would send a missed call to the station. In return, they would receive a callback with 15 minutes of Bollywood content, mostly banter and songs from films, interspersed with Unilever ads. “At the time, you couldn’t listen to songs easily,” says Prashant Harsh, a 23-year-old student and regular Kan Khajura subscriber. “You had to pay to get them from a shop in a memory card.”

Kan Khajura’s central appeal was that it could be accessed anywhere and anytime, unlike the radio and TV. Moreover, streaming was free, and the material was always fresh. The station would also adapt on the basis of a caller’s interactions. If a customer ended a call prematurely, algorithms would shuffle the playlist for the subsequent session, so that the station functioned as a kind of cross between terrestrial radio and curated internet-based services such as Spotify or YouTube. Kan Khajura grew to become, for several years, the most accessed “radio channel” in Bihar and had around 50 million subscribers across the country.

The missed call, in 2013, began bridging the gap between offline users and the expanding world of social media. ZipDial partnered with Twitter to allow users to “subscribe” to celebrities’ feeds — beginning with that of Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood superstar — through a missed call, with Tweets delivered as texts to users’ phones. It partnered with Facebook, which embedded a missed-call button on its platform so Indian mobile users could interact with advertised brands offline, without incurring extra data charges.

However, ZipDial, the industry’s poster child, always maintained that it was “not just a missed-calls company.” Certainly, to call it that would be to shortchange its vision. The founders wished to position the company, as Wagoner told one newspaper in 2013, as “Google Analytics for the offline world.” ZipDial aimed to “know the most about the most number of customers long before they got connected to the internet” — information that would continue to be useful long after customers did. The company dealt in big data, and in an offline India, the missed call was the ideal tool to gather it.

The founders predicted online social media would win out eventually, Wagoner said. “But there was a good five- or seven-year window where people were not yet going to have the internet on the kind of scale that they could reach those platforms.”

Juliana Tan for Rest of World

But how quickly would India get online? “I had a friend who described ZipDial’s model to me as an ice cube in the sun: many of the use cases would eventually go away,” Swamy says. 

As early as 2014, it was apparent that Swamy’s ice cube had begun to melt. Anil Kumar, the owner of a matchmaking app based in Chennai, recalled that he was pleasantly surprised when he first noticed young professionals in his office flicking through their new smartphones. “I thought, ‘Wow, do I pay you enough to afford a smartphone?’” The devices were a sizable fraction of their monthly wage and a sign, he said, that smartphones would come to be seen as an “affordable luxury.” 

As the mobile adoption rate accelerated, smartphones continued to proliferate, especially as Indian and Chinese manufacturers like Micromax and Xiaomi entered the market in force, selling devices for as little as $80. In 2013, the number of total smartphone users in India had swelled to 117 million, a 55% increase from the previous year.

“I had a friend who described ZipDial’s model to me as an ice cube in the sun: many of the use cases would eventually go away.”

“We observed and anticipated these changes and built them into how the ZipDial platform evolved,” Wagoner said. So video links were sent alongside callbacks, and WhatsApp messages supplemented SMSes. In 2014, ZipDial’s most prominent campaigns were directed at easing new smartphone owners online. Companies such as Amazon, Flipkart, and Uber ran campaigns that sent callers links to their official apps. “Today, people will say, Go to the App Store or Play store and download my app,” Swamy said. But at the time, “the discovery was a lot simpler to give them a number to call.”

Later that year, Wagoner, Pathak, and Swamy were considering a move to the “next phase of consumer connectivity.” ZipDial wanted to continue to interface between brands and its 60 million customer base, perhaps through an app. But then, they received a dream offer: Twitter wanted to purchase ZipDial for a reported $30–40 million, in what would be the tech company’s first acquisition in India.

Twitter said in a statement about the deal that ZipDial’s technology would help “make great content more accessible to everyone.” Taking the offer made sense for ZipDial as well: it could push the missed call into new markets with the help of Twitter’s money and sales team, albeit in the service of a single client.

ZipDial’s founders were ecstatic. “We had accomplished something extraordinary for the Indian startup ecosystem at that time,” Wagoner said. “ZipDial was a shining example for that time in India’s tech innovation.” 

Courtesy Valerie Wagoner

Over the next year, Twitter expanded the amount of content available via missed calls, adding more Indian celebrities and politicians to its roster. However, in late 2016, just over a year and a half after the sale, it altered course to focus on its core product. Several of its subsidiaries were abruptly shuttered, including ZipDial. “One of the last things I did was lay off all the ZipDial people,” said Wagoner, who was by then Twitter’s senior director for growth. “Anything non-core was ‘Kill, kill. Sold off, shut down.’”

The move effectively terminated ZipDial’s operations. But by 2016, tech in India — already changing at warp speed as its online population expanded, given steadily falling data rates — was set to undergo a transformation. “I would not have built that same company again in 2016 that I built in 2009,” Wagoner said. The company’s founders could not have been able to predict just how swiftly India would move past the missed call. 

In 2015, one year into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, the government’s “Digital India” campaign vowed to increase internet connectivity across the country. In late 2016, Mukesh Ambani, a close ally of Modi and now India’s richest person, formally launched his new telecom company, Reliance Jio, promising to extend cheap 4G internet to all Indians.

Jio’s prices at launch were so ludicrous — new customers were given four free GB of data per day — that for weeks afterward, long queues snaked outside its outlets. Jio SIM cards were sold on the black market. Its competitors panicked and slashed their own rates to remain competitive. By the end of the ensuing price war, the cost of one GB of data had dropped from roughly 226 rupees in 2015 and 76 rupees in 2016 to 19 rupees, and it was still trending downward.

The age of mobile data “came much faster than anticipated, thanks to Jio,” Wagoner says. Ambani brought the very people that ZipDial had been targeting online. Plumbing its parent company’s deep pockets, Jio increased its number of phone towers in order to provide reliable data coverage in rural areas where its competitors’ networks were apt to fail. By late 2017, it had reached 130 million subscribers.

Data use in India consequently exploded. In 2015, the average Indian user consumed about 805 MB of data per month; by 2017, that figure had risen sevenfold, to 5.7 GB. Mobile marketing companies like VivaConnect saw a serious drop in missed-call engagement among millennials, says Vikram Raichura, the company’s founder and CEO. As millions of Indians joined social media platforms like Facebook, brands became reluctant to pay for missed-call campaigns when they could drive traffic more cheaply online.

Harsh, the Kan Khajura listener, went from lurking in railway stations and government offices for free Wi-Fi to possessing rapid internet at his fingertips. The days of ringing up Kan Khajura quickly receded into the past. “You can get everything in the fastest possible way,” he said. “There was no point in using all of these other services.” Like millions of other Indians, he was able to watch YouTube videos from anywhere, without having to worry about rationing his data usage. Having spent years relying on missed calls to receive cricket updates, “things changed after Jio’s launch,” he said. “Now, even when you’re outside, you can watch cricket matches and not miss a single ball.”

Courtesy Valerie Wagoner

A large part of ZipDial’s success flowed from the fact that it was able, during its run, to adapt nimbly to India’s changing tech landscape. “As a founder, you have to find the strategic balance between what today’s customers need but simultaneously lay the foundations for how you know you will need to innovate in the future,” Wagoner says. “We were always ready to innovate and respond to market dynamics.” So the missed call began as an alternative to the internet and then became a bridge to it, as Indians moved online, until the profoundly disruptive influence of Jio rendered even that role unnecessary. 

In retrospect, Wagoner says, ZipDial was a way to close the “offline-to-online gap” that existed between consumers and online services and products in India. It’s a gap that still exists today, Wagoner said, but, with changing needs, is being addressed in a different way: through digital payment systems.

There are only a few examples of missed-call models left. Banks still offer missed-call services, for instance, as a way to obtain account statements. And they’re popular in politics, especially with the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling party. In early 2020, the BJP launched a missed-call campaign to drum up support for a controversial bill, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which sought to exclude Muslim refugees from Muslim-majority countries from becoming Indian nationals. The party claimed that it received over 5 million calls of support in favor of the bill. 

But if missed calls were seen at one point as convenient and egalitarian — they helped launch a massive anti-corruption campaign in 2011 — as they have moved away from the mainstream to become a fixture only in the very poorest households, the optics surrounding their use has changed. Missed-call campaigns are seen today as a way to link politicians to “information-deprived, gullible voters,” says Keyoor Purani, a marketing professor at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode.

It’s all but certain that any remaining applications of the missed call will soon become redundant. By 2022, there are expected to be 820 million smartphones in India, and a widespread issue, as Kumar, the schoolteacher, sees it, is Indians being glued to them at all times, enthralled by its offerings. In 2018, the average Indian’s monthly data usage vaulted from 4.13 GB to 7.69 GB per month, one of the highest in the world. “The missed-call days were less hectic,” he says. “Now that peace is finished.”

The internet revolution has brought about vast benefits for India: digital connectivity defines nearly every aspect of Indian life, a trend that has only accelerated during the pandemic. A service like Kan Khajura, which was scrapped in 2019 because of low engagement numbers, seems distant. “If you compare it to today, it definitely seems silly,” says Harsh. “But in the past, people used to send letters and telegrams. They used to wait weeks for a reply. At the time, you had to explore how to do the most with the least resources.”