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June 25, 2019
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TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

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In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

Tencent’s mixed bag for Q1: record profit despite weakest revenue growth yet

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Tencent, Asia’s largest tech firm, had a horrific 2018 on account of a country-wide freeze on new game monetization in China, but there’s evidence it has turned the corner.

The company’s new mobile gaming hit Game for Peace has yet to kickstart the company’s recovery from a few weakening quarters, but its booming financial technology division has helped to neutralize the brunt to some degree.

The Chinese social media and gaming titan ended the first quarter of 2019 with its slowest revenue growth since going public to $12.69 billion, a 16 percent increase year-over-year. On the other side, net profit came in at a record $4 billion, beating analyst estimates in the process.

Though most famous for WeChat, video games have fuelled Tencent’s earnings and stock prices for many years. The lucrative segment took a hit during a prolonged licensing freeze last year that prevented Tencent from monetizing a few blockbuster titles like PUBG, and the impact was still felt in the latest quarter.

Online games revenue for Q1 dropped to 28.51 billion yuan ($4.1 billion), compared to 28.78 billion yuan a year before. Still, it is a testament to the global appeal of PUBG and Fortnite that the revenue drop wasn’t precipitous despite the issues in China.

The sluggish period may end soon as Tencent recently secured the official green light to start charging for its PUGB substitute Game for Peace, a less violent version than its predecessor. The new game grossed $14 million within the first three days of release, beating the $4 million Fortnite — the widely-heralded global smash hit — pocketed in the same duration, according to data from Sensor Tower.

On top of that, Tencent said it is introducing ‘season passes’ — using the same monetization technique as PUBG and Fortnite — to popular games Cross Fire Mobile, Honour of Kings and QQ Speed Mobile which could also boost monetization in China.

Fintech and enterprise-facing services made up Tencent’s second-largest revenue bucket with 21.79 billion yuan ($3.16 billion), a 44 percent growth year-over-year. In recent quarters, the firm began to single out its earnings for its booming fintech unit that contains its popular payments service WeChat Pay.

Unlike Facebook, Tencent hasn’t aggressively monetized its social media empire for advertising inventory until recently. Online ad revenues grew 25 percent to 13.38 billion yuan ($1.94 billion), accounting for 15.7 percent of total revenues.

That’s thanks to increased ad revenues from Weixin. All told, WeChat and its Chinese version Weixin crossed the 1.1 billion monthly active user benchmark. Its 20-year-old QQ, a legacy chatting app from the Chinese PC era, continued to grow and reached 823 MAUs.

Tencent’s Netflix -style video streaming service also contributed to increased ad earnings. Tencent Video, which has poured vast sums of money to license content in a bid to outrace Baidu’s iQiyi and Alibaba’s Youku, reached 89 million subscribers in the season.

India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

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Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars in the nation.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own app store that hosts mini apps and lets users tip authors. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the mote. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

And Reliance Jio, of course

For the rest, the race is still on, but there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

This YC-backed startup preps Chinese students for US data jobs

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In recent years, data analysts have gone from optional to a career that holds great promise, but demand for quantitative skills applied in business decisions has raced ahead of supply as college curriculum often lags behind the fast-changing workplace.

CareerTu, a New York-based startup launched by Ruiwan Xu, a former marketing manager at Amazon, aims to close that talent gap. Think of it as Codecademy for digital marketing, data analytics, product design and a whole lot of other jobs that ask one to spot patterns from a sea of data that can potentially boost business efficiency. The six-year-old profitable business runs a flourishing community of 160,000 users and 500 recruiting partners that help students land jobs at Amazon, Google, Alibaba and the likes, an achievement that has secured the startup a spot at Y Combinator’s latest batch plus a $150,000 check from the Mountain View-based accelerator.

In a way, CareerTu is helping fledgling tech startups on a tight budget train ready-to-use data experts. “American companies have a huge demand for digital marketing and data talents these days … but not all of them want to or can spend money on training, and that’s where we can come in,” said Xu, who made her way into Amazon after burying herself in online tutorials about digital marketing.

The gig was well paid, and Xu felt the urge to share her experience with people like her — Chinese workers and students seeking data jobs in the U.S. She took up blogging, and eventually grew it into an online school. CareerTu offers many of its classes for free while sets aside a handful of premium content for a fee. 6,000 of its users are actively paying, which translates to some $500,000 in revenue last year. The virtual academy continues to blossom as many students return to become mentors, helping their Chinese peers to chase the American dream.

CareerTu

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham (second left) with CareerTu founder Ruiwan Xu (second right) and her team members / Photo: CareerTu

Securing a job in the U.S. could be a daunting task for international students, who must convince employers to invest the time and money in getting them a work visa. But when it comes to courting scare data talents, the visa trap becomes less relevant.

“Companies could have hired locals to do data work, but it’s very difficult to find the right candidate,” suggested Xu. LinkedIn estimated that in 2018 the U.S. had a shortage of more than 150,000 people with “data science skills,” which find application not just in tech but also traditional sectors like finance and logistics.

“Nationalities don’t matter in this case,” Xu continued. “Employers will happily apply a work visa or even a green card for the right candidate who can help them save money on marketing campaigns. And many Chinese people happen to have a really strong background in data and mathematics.”

A Chinese business in the US

Though most of CareerTu’s users live in the U.S., the business is largely built upon WeChat, Tencent’s messaging app ubiquitous among Chinese users. That CareerTu sticks to WeChat for content marketing, user acquisition and tutoring is telling of the super app’s user stickiness and how overseas Chinese are helping to extend its global footprint.

And it makes increasing sense to keep CareerTu within the WeChat ecosystem after Xu noticed a surge in inquiries coming from her homeland. In 2018, only 5 percent of CareerTu’s users were living in China, many of whom were export sellers on Amazon. By early 2019, the ratio has shot up to 12 percent.

Xu believes there are two forces at work. For one, Chinese exporters are leaving Amazon to set up independent ecommerce sites, efforts that are in part enabled by Shopify’s entry into China in 2018. The alternative path provides merchants more control over branding, margins and access to customer insights. Breaking up with the ecommerce titan, on the other hand, requires Chinese sellers to get savvier at reaching foreign shoppers, expertise that CareerTu prides itself on.

careertu

CareerTu offers online courses via WeChat / Photo: CareerTu

Next door, large Chinese tech firms are increasingly turning abroad to fuel growth. Bytedance is possibly the most aggressive adventurer among its peers in recent years, buying up media startups around the world including Musical.ly, which would later merge with TikTok. Indeed, some of CareerTu’s recent grads have gone on to work at the popular video app. Rising interest from China eventually paved Xu’s way home as she recently set up her first Chinese office in her hometown Chengdu, the laid-back city known for its panda parks and witnessing a tech boom.

Just as foreign companies need crash courses on WeChat before entering China, Chinese firms going global must familiarize themselves with the marketing mechanisms of Facebook and Google despite China’s ban on the social network and search engine.

When American companies growth hack, they make long-term plans that involve “model building, A/B testing, and making discoveries from big data,” observed Xu. By comparison, Chinese companies fighting in a more competitive landscape are more agile and opportunist as they don’t have the time to ponder or test out the different variants in a campaign.

“Going abroad is a great thing for Chinese companies because it sets them against their American counterparts,” said Xu. “We are teaching Chinese the western way, but we are also learning the Chinese way of marketing from players like Bytedance. I’m excited to see in a few years whether any of these Chinese companies abroad will become a local favorite.”

Update (March 18, 2019, 7:00 AM): Added details of CareerTu’s partners and corrected spelling of Ruiwan Xu’s name.

China’s YY eyes overseas live streaming with $1.45B Bigo buyout

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One of China’s top live streaming companies YY bought a stake and obtained the right to purchase a majority share in Bigo last June, and now the other shoe has dropped after YY fully acquired the Singapore-based startup behind live streaming app Bigo Live and short-video service Like.

That’s according to an announcement YY made on Monday, which disclosed it has bought out the remaining 68.3 percent of all the issued and outstanding shares of Bigo for a price tag of about $1.45 billion.

Bigo’s connection to YY is deep-rooted. Li Xueling, a veteran Chinese journalist who’s also known as David Li, founded YY in 2005 well before the heyday of mobile-based live streaming apps. With the intent to bring the China-tested business to overseas markets, Li started Bigo in 2016 to replicate YY’s lucrative revenue model where the platform operator takes a cut whenever viewers reward streamers with virtual gifts, which can be cashed out.

YY racked up $675 million in net revenues and a net income of around $100 million from the fourth quarter of 2018, its latest earnings report shows.

The Bigo buyout is set to be a huge boost to YY’s international ambitions as its home market has been divided up between YY itself, its spin-off Huya that focuses on esports streaming and Huya’s archrival Douyu. Curiously, both Douyu and Huya are backed by Tencent, the company best known for the WeChat messenger but is also China’s largest games publisher.

To bring the domestic rivalry into perspective, Nasdaq-listed YY recorded a monthly mobile user base of 90.4 million in the fourth quarter. Huya, which priced its U.S. initial public offering at $180 million last August, posted a monthly of 50.7 million users from the same period. Douyu hasn’t recently unveiled its size as the company is reportedly mulling to go public in the U.S., but third-party data analytics company QuestMobile put its MAU in December at 43 million.

“We are very excited to announce the completion of the acquisition of Bigo. It is an important milestone for YY group which demonstrated our confidence and commitment to the globalization strategy,” said Li of YY in a statement.

Huya and Douyu have also ventured beyond China for new growth with their respective overseas brands Nimo TV and Nonolive. In its Q4 earnings report, Huya singled out foreign markets as one area of focus in 2019 and its Nimo already enjoys having a powerful ally, Tencent, which signed an agreement last July to help it with gaming content and brand recognition.

Huya’s overseas brand Nimo TV

“In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets,” said chief executive Dong Rongjie. “We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond.”

While anchoring in Southeast Asia, Bigo has debuted in over 100 countries worldwide and been in the top ten of Apple’s app store not just in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia but also in Paraguay, Yeman and Angola, according to data collected by app tracking service App Annie. Growth in India has been particularly strong this year as the country captured 32 percent of Bigo’s 11 million new Android users who downloaded the app via Google Play between January and February, according to data provided by SensorTower.

Li estimated in 2017 that Bigo was generating an annual revenue of $300 million at the time. Bigo claims 200 million registered users to date with MAUs reaching almost 37 million worldwide. Its popularity has, however, gone hand in hand with its reputation for hosting offensive content, but the startup has assured it deploys resources to closely screen content. Back in China, YY, Huya, Douyu and the likes are constantly grappling with the government’s tightening grip over online information, which puts the burden on media companies to keep a robust content monitoring team to not only rid illegal videos but also parse the country’s opaque definition of what’s considered “inappropriate”.

Update (March 5, 2019, 13:00pm): Added details on Bigo’s growth and Huya’s overseas expansion

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