This article was originally written and published by Xinmang Daybreak, Oasis is authorized to translate and publish on its platform, translation is done by Joanna Ng.
Launching and growing a social media platform in China is hard, especially when the market is already dominated by companies like Tencent, which counts over 1.2 billion active daily users (DAU) on its platforms WeChat and QQ. On top of that, there’s also ByteDance and its over 600 DAUs on Douyin. Blued, however, has managed to find its sweet spot as the to-go platform for the LGBTQ community.
In July 2020, Beijing-headquartered Blue City, the company behind Blued, made history as the first LGBTQ social network to publicly trade on the Nasdaq stock exchange. The platform currently has over 54 million registered users and 12 million monthly active users worldwide, half of them from outside China.
Blue City’s founder, Baoli Ma, also known as Geng Le, used to be a police officer before he stepped on the entrepreneurial path. As a young 19-year-old, he had been confused about his own sexual identity. Yet, he couldn’t find much information about homosexuality as LGBTQ was still a taboo topic in the Chinese community in the 90s.
So, in 2000, he decided to start an LGBTQ forum named Danlan to provide a discussion board for gay Chinese men, which he moderated under the alias Geng Le. After a few years, Ma quit his day job to follow an entrepreneurial path that led him to found Blue City in 2011.
Online media Xinmang Daybreak spoke to Ma last year about the lessons he learned on his entrepreneurial journey over the last decade. Here are his thoughts.
The interviewee’s answers have been translated from Chinese and edited for brevity and clarity.
The three most valuable pieces of advice
When Blued had just finished its angel investment round in 2013, we faced a disagreement with one of our [undisclosed] competitors. Initially, we wanted to take the matter to court, but the advice from one of our investors changed my mind.
He said, “Geng Le, you’re currently at the head of the industry. What you should be doing is to move forward instead of looking back. Don’t get too involved with your competitors because their aim is to create conflict to pull you down. The best thing to do is to ignore the distractions and concentrate on what you want to achieve.”
Another valuable piece of advice I’ve received was also from another investor. It was during the period after we finished our round of investments for a Series B fundraising in the second half of 2014. The company’s growth had rocketed immensely, and I was feeling very optimistic, thinking that we would be able to file for a public listing very soon.
Instead, upon hearing my thoughts, one of the investors said, “when a company is doing well, that is the time to refrain from being overly ecstatic. Most of the time, the foundation is still unstable, and by being overly optimistic without a plan in mind, it will end up in shambles, more often than not.” These words were a timely reminder and left a lasting impact. From then on, I’ve constantly reminded myself not to be overconfident or emphasize too much on the current value. To be successful, every step taken must be firm and steady.
As a founder and CEO, one must be the fastest learner in the company. As the company grows, exceptional talents will also increase. If the CEO does not continue to learn, it’s very easy to fall behind in leading a team, which might obstruct a company’s growth.
The third piece of advice I heard was also from another investor, who once told me, “a majority of your management team are largely from your founding pioneer team. While you’re nostalgic, there is a need to open up for more talents. Give the younger ones more opportunities, and keep reshuffling your team.” He also suggested finding someone to take over my business role so that I could dedicate more time to strategize.
At that time, I immediately wondered if he didn’t acknowledge or approve of my abilities. However, I then realized that it was an excellent piece of advice. While a person can be capable, there is a limit to how much he can achieve compared to a larger team. Since then, I make a point to always inject new blood into the team and put young talents in management roles. They are fast learners and intelligent—I believe that they will one day surpass me.
“All-in,” go global, and make money
I founded Blued in 2012 when the mobile internet economy had just started to grow. While there were differing opinions about the future of mobile internet, I firmly believed that there would be a tidal change in the industry. So, I decided to shift our business entirely from being a website to becoming a mobile platform.
With an “all-in” strategy on the LGBTQ online networking mobile app, we succeeded in a short period of time. The key to success on this part was probably the sensitivity towards trends in the internet industry, which is mobile-first.
The other important decision I made was delaying the decision to go global. After closing our Series A investment funding in early 2014, we strongly urged to launch internationally. However, everyone had different opinions about it. Some felt that there was still a lot to be done in China, and if we were to launch overseas, we wouldn’t be able to maintain and deliver better results in China. After spending two years growing Blued into the top LGBTQ app in China, we decided to launch officially overseas.
We started with Southeast Asia because the culture was similar to China, giving us an advantage. We then moved on to Korea and Japan before finally launching in Europe and other parts of the world. It was definitely the right and crucial decision to delay our plans for the global market. It prevented us from burning too much capital and diverting our attention too much. It later helped us achieve a leading position in different markets.
Lastly, the monetization model. The company had achieved a solid user base that allowed us to easily earn from popular online models—memberships, advertisement, livestreaming, etc. However, I had a very different perspective of what the LGBTQ community needed. I knew that they had many demands that could not be fulfilled easily by a traditional model and wanted to solve that with a softer approach. In the end, we came up with medical and health consultation services as part of the monetization model.
After two years of adjustments, we became a company that not only provides social networking offerings but also health services for the LGBTQ community at a global level.
One of the toughest challenges was during the early days when the pioneer team started to leave little by little. That’s s the most challenging time because when they leave, there’s no one to look over their responsibilities. I sometimes asked myself, “Is it because of something I did? Why aren’t they willing to continue the journey with me?”
I’ve strengthened my mental capability since then. If I were to come across this situation again, my first consideration would be to find a way to convince the person to stay if he’s really competent. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just have to think of a way to find a replacement to stabilize the team so that things go on as usual.
The other challenge happened in 2019 [when the company was forced to stop new user registration after being blasted by local media for failing to enforce proper age verification]. While I can’t specifically explain what happened, the incident taught us that whenever we would come across an external crisis, the most crucial thing is to look within ourselves and find the issue.
Does your product have a problem? Are your security measures really safe? In your mind, do you treat this as an important and urgent matter to solve?
Find the problem within yourself instead of focusing on the observations and criticisms of the external world. What’s most meaningful is to change within ourselves, instead of finding excuses or shifting responsibility. Ensure that these things don’t happen a second time. Whatever we do, we have to take social responsibility for it.