In Ep. 21 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma talk about the new messaging app, Bullet Messenger, which took the Chinese internet by storm and reached five million registered users in just eleven days.
The key question is: is this a true challenger to WeChat? Or is it more of a short-lived, false alarm without real long-term potential? Listeners will also hear expert analysis from Matthew Brennan, a speaker and writer focused on Chinese mobile internet who can be found at @mbrennanchina and on the podcast China Tech Talk.
Rui and Ying-Ying start by delving into a crucial quality about Bullet which has been overlooked in English language coverage: the incredible power and reach of its angel investor and best spokesperson, Luo Yonghao. Luo is a former English teacher who gained a cult following thanks to his entertaining sayings and charisma in the classroom. He took his cultural capital and went into smartphones, creating the brand Smartisan, which released its first phone in May 2014. Smartisan formerly employed a senior product manager named Hao Xijie, founder of the company that created Bullet Messenger. Though Hao has made clear that his intention is to disrupt business messaging, media has not been deterred from hailing him as a “WeChat challenger.”
Rui and Ying-Ying dig into some of Bullet’s features, including its quick voice-to-text function, the ability to reply in threads, and easier management of group chats. However, even with these interesting functions, the big challenge of the app is its lack of contacts– how is the app going to create overcome the network effects dominance of WeChat? It also has challenges with privacy and with inappropriate content. Even so, the company has already taken on $22 million in funding at a nearly $90 million valuation from Banyan Capital and Chengwei Capital, even before going through the full list of interested investors, which had included Tencent.
Listen to the newest episode of TechBuzz China and join our co-hosts in debating: does Bullet have a real chance at disrupting WeChat, or at least take away some of the current use cases of WeChat, the biggest success of Chinese internet in the past decade? Or… is WeChat completely and utterly Bullet-proof?
As always, you can find these stories and more at pandaily.com. Let us know what you think of the show by leaving us an iTunes review, like our Facebook page, and don’t forget to tweet at us at @techbuzzchina to win some swag!
We are TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network.
We are a new weekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China. We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. TechBuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, a new English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.”
(Y: Ying-Ying Lu; R: Rui Ma; M: Matthew Brennan)
[0:01] R: Today, we are going to talk about the new messaging app, 子弹短信, or Bullet Messenger, that’s taken the Chinese internet by storm. That’s why this episode is titled – is Wechat bulletproof? Get it, Yingying?
Y: Ah yes, Rui and her love of bad puns. Anyway, the Chinese internet has indeed been obsessing over this new chatting app. But surely not every messaging app that gets launched in China gets the kind of traction that Bullet did in its first few days. It got 5 million registered users in just eleven days, and it was ranked the number 1 free social app on the Chinese App Store.
[0:45] R: The key word there being “was.” Because after reaching 7 million users a few days ago, it’s slowed down significantly. Already, it’s only #6 in China social networking on the app store. Did you watch the movie Crazy Rich Asians, Yingying?
Y: Of course I did! Gotta support diversity and representation yo.
[1:03] R: Remember the tanhua viewing party that those people had? Tanhua, which is sometimes called Queen of the Night in English, is this cactus flower that basically blooms very rarely and only at night, and wilts before dawn. Really high maintenance right? It’s incredibly beautiful but also incredibly short-lived, which is why there is a popular saying in Chinese 昙花一现, referring to when something is as ephemeral as the tanhua.
Y: Yeah. Boom and then it’s gone! A flash in the pan. Some are already referring to Bullet Messenger as exactly that. 昙花一现. Others are a bit more bullish. Who’s right? Is it too early to tell? Let’s find out on today’s Techbuzz!
[2:58] Y: We want to thank South China Morning Post for writing about us alongside many other excellent podcasters last week. Check out our transcript for links to other excellent female-hosted shows. Thank you SCMP for calling us a “must-listen” podcast and “one of the best on China tech”! Thank you also to longtime listeners Trevor Scott, Leonardo Flores, Jessie Guo, and Alan Ying-lun Chan. We really appreciate your support yall!
R: And of course, also to everyone else who continues to give us constructive feedback. If you enjoy listening to us, please take the time to leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Facebook or wherever you get your podcast!
[3:50] Y: Honestly, Rui, most of the English articles I read on Bullet Messenger completely missed one crucial point. The incredible power and reach of its angel investor and best spokesperson, 罗永浩. That’s where we should really start our story, don’t you think?
R: Yeah! We can’t talk about Bullet without talking about Luo Yonghao, AKA Lao Luo 老罗 (Old Luo) or 罗胖子 (Fattie Luo). I mean, honestly? Let’s face it. He is the single most important reason Bullet has millions of users. Sure, maybe there’s some product innovation, but without his marketing, there is just no way some dinky little messaging startup can get $22 million in funding just two weeks after launch at a valuation of nearly $90 million.
[4:51] Y: For most of our listeners though, this is probably the first time they’ve heard the name, because while Fat Luo is like an A-list business celebrity in China, he’s not at all well known outside the country. So, Rui, how do we describe Lao Luo 老罗 to our listeners?
R: Well Lao Luo, Old Luo, really isn’t that old. He’s only 46 this year. He also isn’t that fat, although he is kind of rotund. Luo was born in Jilin, the northeast of China, in what we call Dongbei 东北, where the weather is really harsh and the people are known for being very resilient and hardy. Hardy, and also humorous. I’m not really sure why, but a lot of famous comedians from China are from this area. Maybe life is so tough there that you just gotta learn to have a sense of humor.
[5:28] Y: Well life was definitely tough for Luo. He wasn’t from a well-to-do family, that much we know, and he quit school for good in his high school junior year. He then did a few odd jobs, including selling second-hand books and smuggling cars, before deciding that his future lay in teaching English.
R: Yeah, he’s a used book salesman turned English teacher. Legend has it that he was rejected twice by New Oriental, China’s earliest largest scale test prep company, before the founder Yu Minhong finally hired him as an English teacher for the GRE in 2001.
[6:08] Y: You’re probably thinking, great, he was an English teacher, so what? And this is where you would be wrong because this is actually a very, very important point. The Chinese tech space is filled with English teachers, especially those from 新东方, New Oriental. Don’t believe me? China’s self-proclaimed Bitcoin Billionaire, 李笑来. Creditease, one of China’s largest fintech companies, founder and CEO 唐宁 Tang Ning. Guess what? Both New Oriental English teachers. And of course, don’t forget the granddaddy of all Entrepreneurial English teachers, Jack Ma, although he was not ever at New Oriental.
[6:59] R: You know how in Silicon Valley we have the Paypal Mafia? Well in China we have the New Oriental mafia. No joke. Maybe you have heard of Bob Xu 徐小平 and 王强, founders of Zhen Fund, a top early stage VC fund in China. Both were New Oriental co-founders. 李丰, former VC at IDG, founder of Free S fund and a top fintech investor, also a former New Oriental executive. One article from 2016 even goes as far as to say that up to 65% of active tech investors were directly or indirectly linked to New Oriental. Now I don’t know if I believe that number, sounds kind of high, but there’s certainly a substantial number of New Oriental alumni in tech and VC.
[7:48] Y: How random is that? I mean, New Oriental, which is listed by the way on the NYSE under ticker EDU and is today worth $11 billion, is still, at its heart, a test prep company. It’s like if I told you that Princeton Review produced a bunch of successful tech entrepreneurs and investors. You’d be scratching your head right?
R: But if you are Chinese, this wouldn’t surprise you very much. There are a few simple reasons why. In China, the best and brightest would usually choose to study abroad, especially in the US and UK. To do that, you have to study for the English standardized exams. So pretty much it was a guaranteed thing that the creme de la creme of China would have to take English test prep classes, and for a very long time, New Oriental was the biggest and most dominant player in town. In fact, most Chinese people I know have taken at least one New Oriental class or another, including our Pandaily founder Kevin.
[8:46] Y: Secondly, however, was the way New Oriental operated. In China, most teachers have absolute power in the classroom. They are to be absolutely respected, as it is considered a very noble profession. It’s very much a hierarchical system. You don’t question the teacher, and the teacher could care less about what you think about their teaching. Their job is just to make sure that you get high scores on your exams. In New Oriental, however, the teachers were rated by the students. Student satisfaction was a core KPI for the teachers. Now, what did that mean? That means the teachers cared a lot about the student experience. New Oriental teachers were thus known not just for being effective, but they were also very very entertaining.
[9:43] R: And Lao Luo was the most entertaining of them all. Well, at least one of the top anyway. He was famous for his witticisms and idealistic sayings. Seriously guys, he was so famous that MP3s of the speeches he made during class were pirated and widely disseminated nationwide. A collection of his sayings known as 老罗语录 or Luo’s Quotations made him a cultural phenomenon. He was an icon, and from that time on, 2003, he started collecting fans, millions of them.
[10:17] Y: Maybe he realized how powerful content creation was because he quit New Oriental in 2006 and started a blogging platform called Bullog. He also started his own English language training school. The blogging platform didn’t last too long and was shut down a few years later, and the English training school was OK, but it was really his speech about his journey as an entrepreneur, titled “An Idealist’s Startup Story” that made – or should we say kept – him super famous. That and a few books he wrote.
R: That’s really Lao Luo’s style. He’s basically this amazing storyteller that’s good at tugging at your heartstrings, or what we call in Chinese, 很会灌鸡汤, good at feeding you chicken soup, you know, from that series of books, Chicken Soup for the Soul. There are so many people in China who just love him and can’t get enough of his particular brand of aphorisms. You know, listeners, if you can think of a Western entrepreneur that’s in the same vein as Lao Luo, do please tweet at us and let us know because I don’t know who it could be, but basically, he has a cult following not unlike that of Steve Jobs, seriously.
[11:30] Y: And so what did Lao Luo do with his status as a cultural icon? He went into smartphones. I know, maybe not the answer you were expecting. But back to 2012 China, Steve Jobs had died the year before and both him and Apple were massively popular. Chinese people idolized this guy and his products. Xiaomi had been around for two years and was one of the fastest growing startups at the time. Mobile phone ownership in China was growing at a very rapid pace. If you’re Lao Luo, wouldn’t you want to try your hand at making your own smartphone? You already have an established fan base, after all. How hard could it be?
[12:14] R: Famous last words. How hard could it be. Lao Luo established 锤子, which means hammer, but has the English name Smartisan, in 2012, and released his first phone, the T1, in May 2014. There’s a funny aside here, 锤子’s corporate entity had to be renamed recently because in some parts of China, the word is a slang term for male genitals. Might be too late for the brand. So definitely check your company’s Chinese name in various dialects before settling on one, don’t just check the mandarin. Anyway, Luo was going for a designer feel and definitely imagined himself China’s answer to Steve Jobs. The phone was priced at 3000 RMB, or almost $500, which was significantly higher than other domestic brands at the time. I remember a friend of mine bought one of the first ones and went to the product unveiling at the National Convention Center. It was a big deal. While he acknowledged that it was overpriced, he was a 罗粉, a diehard fan, so he was going to support his idol no matter what.
[13:11] Y: And how has it done since then? Well, in 2017, Smartisan had a market share in China of a whopping 0.6%. So … not that well. But no matter, Lao Luo remains super popular, with over 15 million followers on Weibo. That’s a really large following, just a bit less than Lei Jun’s 17 million! Clearly, not all of Lao Luo’s followers have bought a Smartisan smartphone, which is after all still a big purchase. But what if their idol tells them he’s got an improvement to Wechat in a new free app?
[13:52] R: They download it of course. We are totally not joking. Lao Luo has that kind of crazy charismatic power, that hold over his fans. As Pandaily CEO Kevin told me once – at the annual gala for his last employer, where internet bigshots such as Baidu’s Robin Li would regularly show up, there was only one guest that needed bodyguards because of the number of fans that would swarm him after every appearance. That person does not have the last name Ma and that person was not Robin Li. That person was Lao Luo.
[14:25] Y: Trust us, we don’t really get it either, because I’ve listened to Lao Luo’s so-called “wise sayings,” and while they would make for nice Hallmark cards, I’m not sure that would make him an excellent entrepreneur. But Chinese people seem to think differently, because when he announced Bullet Messenger at the product unveiling of the Smartisan Jianguo Nut 坚果 Pro 2S smartphone on August 20 of this year, they went nuts for the app and downloaded it in droves.
[14:55] R: Bullet Messenger is by the company QuickAs, AKA Kuairu Technology, which is founded by a former Smartisan employee named 郝浠杰, a senior product manager of Smartisan and is now known as the Wechat Challenger. Hao left Smartisan about half a year ago, and he was driven to make a “超高效率的即时通讯软件” or super high efficiency instant messaging service. The original impetus behind his idea was that while many people in China use Wechat for their business needs, it’s clearly not optimized for such as use case.
[15:33] Y: Indeed. Hao actually set out to make his own version of Slack, not Wechat. But because even though there is technically a different version of Wechat for work, as well as the Alibaba Dingding tool, aka DingTalk, which all aim to be China’s Slack, Wechat remains THE company that most people can identify as representative of instant messaging and more. While in Chinese media headlines still use “Wechat challenger”, it’s been made pretty clear that Hao’s intention is to disrupt business messaging. In English media, this seemed to get a little lost. Either way, even Lao Luo has said that while Bullet is not a Wechat competitor, he can’t help but be secretly glad they are being compared this way. I mean, Wechat reached a billion active users back in Q1 this year. Who wouldn’t want to be mentioned in the same breath as Wechat?
[16:36] R: Exactly. What fantastic advertising. Anyway, Smartisan is an investor in Bullet, although we don’t know for sure exactly how much. Lao Luo, therefore, has become its biggest asset and celebrity endorser. He actually mentioned the idea behind Bullet back in May when he was announcing some other stuff for Smartisan, but it is only in the late August Pro 2S product announcement that he divulged more details and really pushed Bullet to everyone. The result being that after the event, very few people talked about the phone… most people were talking about Bullet Messenger.
[17:12] Y: And how exactly is Bullet innovative? Well, for me, the first thing that really stood out was the very quick voice-to-text function. Unlike WeChat which requires you to right click and select “convert to text” for any voice notes you get, Bullet does the conversion automatically, and dare I say, very quickly. It keeps the original voice note so you can still press Play and hear it, and even skip around like you would in any audio player, which Wechat doesn’t allow you to do, but the message is auto-transcribed into text. And the accuracy is pretty darn good for Mandarin Chinese. Supposedly 97%, but I’ve really had no issues at all with it. And the speed is nearly instantaneous.
R: Really helpful for people like me who do a good amount ofvoice notess, which by the way, I really don’t understand why some people hate. It’s such a good way to build relationships! We are biologically wired to respond to voice… it signals familiarity like no other. But again, you already know that, you are listening to our voices right now. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be doing a podcast, we’d be doing a blog.
[19:15] Y: The other features are less obvious as you need more contacts for them to really be useful. You can reply in threads, which is great for group conversations, or to elaborate on specific to-dos, and which Wechat kind of offers in a primitive way on its web version. You can easily save messages to be answered later. You can also send voice messages directly from the front page without even having to tap into a specific conversation first. And finally, you can manage your groups more easily, I love that, muting specific people, locking the entire group, etc. I don’t know about super ultra high efficiency, but certainly faster than the Wechat setup.
[19:59] R: For the Android version, apparently you don’t even need to be in the app to send messages. You can do so from a floating Bullet icon. I don’t really know how that works since I have an iPhone, and also only three contacts on Bullet, I couldn’t really test it myself. But it’s being touted as an efficiency and productivity hack. And there are some other random features like you can see the past profile photo history of your contacts, which I can’t really see as being relevant at all to productivity. I don’t know, Yingying, what do you think?
[20:29] Y: I am not convinced. I like the voice-to-text too, but that’s not even Bullet’s own technology, that’s from iFlytek, 科大讯飞, a publicly listed company in China specializing in voice recognition technology. These other things, they seem like incremental changes on the UI front. In fact, Bullet has been accused of being just a skin on Netease’s 云信 instant messaging PaaS (Platform as a Service) SDK. Although Lao Luo has come out and denied that. But either way, maybe there are some deep architectural differences, and it is true that it is just the first few weeks of Bullet’s existence, there’s supposedly a lot more coming down the pipeline according to Hao, but as far as I’m concerned I am unmoved. I mean, I don’t have any contacts on the app! It’s difficult to be “efficient” when none of your contacts use it. How’s Hao going to resolve that problem?
[21:28] R: That’s the million dollar question, Yingying. Wechat, by the way, originally had some “discovery” functions for meeting new people that really helped it grow in its early days. But if you really want to be a work or productivity app, does that make sense? Hao didn’t really have an answer. Right now if you use a Smartisan phone, you can use Bullet to discover other Smartisan users, but that’s kind of about it. Maybe they’ll incorporate social networking, maybe they won’t. Right now though, there is no discover new friends or Wechat moments equivalent function. All there is is chat… and a newsfeed.
[22:07] Y: Yeah, it’s still ultra simple. Hao’s argument is that for Wechat, with such a large user base, by definition they just would have to be very slow to launch any new features because there is just such a wide range of use cases and user types that they would want to accommodate. Whereas with Bullet? They can try to just appease one segment of users, and of course, starting off as a new app they can iterate much more quickly since they don’t have to appeal to a billion people. And he said that sure, when they’re just 10% more efficient than Wechat, maybe users don’t switch, but wait until they are 100% more efficient! Then people will change! Spoken like a true engineer. Let us build a superior product, and the users will come.
[22:57] R: So that really doesn’t sound like a Wechat killer to me. Basically, in every interview Hao said that we are small, we are nimble, we are trying to find a narrow, specific use case. But again, even being compared to Wechat is such great advertising. And it is true that in China, with Wechat having been so dominant in the past, nearly a decade, there are people who are clamoring for an alternative. A minority of people, at least, think Wechat has too much data on them, for example.
[23:27] Y: Yeah, but Bullet is definitely not the answer if you want to protect your privacy. In fact, they got in trouble for having a terms of service that basically said “we might keep your data safe, or we might not”. We don’t promise anything at all. Even by Chinese standards, it was ridiculous and inspired outrage online. This might explain why some users complained that they were being added by random people and being spammed with pornographic content. Or … all the inappropriate content could be why the user growth was so steep. Either way, that doesn’t fit well with Bullet’s aspiration to be Slack. And it will get them in trouble with the government if they don’t fix it.
[24:16] R: No worries though, Lao Luo can take care of all these PR crises. The guy is a media genius. As I hope maybe we have convinced you so far, Bullet is really not all that special. It definitely does have a few cool features, but the real reason for its first few million users? Lao Luo. Come on, he was already a celebrity before he became an entrepreneur, and now he’s even more of one. Seriously guys. This is totally a thing in China.
[24:48] Y: Yeah, if you don’t believe us, just follow the Chinese coverage on the other big tech-related headline of the week, which was the arrest of Richard Liu, CEO of JD, for allegations of rape while on a visit to the US. Chinese businessmen, especially internet entrepreneurs, are not just business leaders. They are regularly in the gossip columns because they’re basically celebrities. The closest equivalent I can think of is Elon Musk and the attention he gets outside of his business decisions or technical prowess. But in China, someone like Lao Luo gets just as many memes as say, a famous performer. Especially someone like Lao Luo, who I would argue, basically is sort of a performer.
R: Indeed. But performances aside, most industry analysts are not bullish on Bullet’s chances. I think by now, it’s pretty clear we are not either. Don’t just listen to us though. We asked our friend Matthew Brennan what he thought. Matt, could you introduce yourself?
[25:47] M: Hi my name is Matthew Brennan, I am a speaker and writer focused on Chinese mobile internet. In particular, I am known for analysis of Tencent and Wechat. I am in the midst of putting together a book entitled The Story of Wechat which should be out by the end of the year.
Y: Okay, so, all those silly headlines about Bullet disrupting Wechat. You already know what we think, Matt. What do you think?
[26:11] M: Bullet messenger isn’t a viable competitor because their new features are very easily copied. As a late mover in this already mature category we need to be looking to leverage advantages that the incumbents cannot match. This is exactly how Tencent was able to break into payments with the Pearl Harbor attack of lucky money. For context here, Alibaba group has tried to take down Wechat several times, and each time has met with spectacular failure. Firstly they failed with the messaging app Laiwang, it was reported that Jack Ma was so concerned about the rise of Wechat that he sent an internal memo to all Alibaba staff insisting that every staff member must recruit 100 non-Alibaba friends to join in the social network or risk losing their annual bonus. Ant Financial’s Alipay also has a pixel-level clone of Wechat embedded directly into their app. As recently as 2016 Alipay ran a social circles feature designed to increase social communication and engagement and again it met with quite a hilarious failure and much embarrassment when they were widely accused in media of helping to facilitate prostitution.
[27:37] R: Yeah we covered that back in episode 11 on our episode on Ant Financial. Hilarious failure indeed. But okay, we already know Alibaba, aside from DingTalk, is pretty abysmal at messaging and anything social. I’m super curious, what do you think a viable competitor to Wechat would even look like?
[27:58] M: The changing paradigm that allowed Wechat to rise up initially and become China’s default messaging product was the shift from desktop to mobile. I think we’re going to have to see a similar device shift, probably to some form of smart glasses, for a serious competitor to really emerge. We do see a similar thing in China to the west where kids don’t want to be on the same apps their parents use, but Tencent also has threat fairly well covered because of its mobile QQ messenger. Wechat has so many moats. The social graph, universally accepted online offline payments, a very rich media and content ecosystem, and also a developer ecosystem that has expanded considerably with the rise of mini-programs. Wechat is really a juggernaut, it’s more like a device-neutral operating system than a messaging app at this stage. It’s questionable whether it’s actually possible to function as a normal adult in Chinese society without using Wechat. Even Jack Ma admits to using Wechat, although he claims to never have sent lucky money.
[29:02] Y: Thanks a lot, Matt, that was helpful. By the way, Matt can be found at @mbrennanchina, and on the podcast China Tech Talk. So Bullet ain’t gonna disrupt Wechat. Maybe it has a shot at workplace communications like Slack. Maybe. It’ll have to unseat existing competitors first though. But hey, when has that ever stopped venture capitalists (VCs) who are hoping to get lucky?
R: Never, Yingying, never! VCs are not pessimists, we’re optimists. Lao Luo said on his Weibo that 51 venture capitalists and 7 large internet companies were eager to talk to Bullet about funding. Most of the meetings apparently didn’t even happen, because within three days, the Bullet team took that $22 million on a nearly $90 million valuation we talked about earlier from Banyan and Chengwei Capital. This is before they even went through the whole list of interested investors. We now know that Tencent was among them, but didn’t get to talk or to invest. Reports say that Tencent is really pissed.
[30:14] Y: Pretty darn fast fundraising process there. But what is Bullet going to do with that money? They are going to burn through it. Okay, not burn ─ invest. Bullet has three key to-do’s, Lao Luo posted on Weibo. First, stabilize the app. Which they definitely need to do because lots of people have issues with the app crashing, and there’s also been a few gaping security holes that have been discovered and reported. Literally, all your information is completely unencrypted. Second, hire like crazy. Actually, hire enough to staff two shifts of workers. Third, spend! The plan is to spend 1 billion RMB, that’s $150 million, over the next 6 months, to acquire 100 million users.
R: That does not sound super practical, especially these days in China when venture capital is starting to dry up. But maybe not for Lao Luo’s projects, for he is, after all, a celebrity entrepreneur.
[31:22] Y: And anyway, even though we think this product is going to have a tough time… Lao Luo is an idealist. It’s not going to be easy to deter him. And I think after years of struggling with the Smartisan phone, he’s seen how much easier it is to launch software and it’s going to be hard to go back to making phones!
R: Yeah, he’s already lamented on his Weibo that it was so hard to fundraise for Smartisan in comparison to Bullet. Duh, of course! And after six years, he only has 0.6% market share for Smartisan! At 7 million users, Bullet already has 0.7% of Wechat’s billion users.
[32:02] Y: What do you think, guys? Is Bullet a tanhua that’s doomed to bloom for a few days, or does it have a chance to disrupt Wechat, or at least take away some of the current use cases of Wechat, the biggest success of Chinese internet in the past decade? Or is Wechat, completely and utterly Bullet proof? Let us know, by tweeting at us at @techbuzzchina!
TechBuzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network. Pandaily.com is a new English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” You can find us on twitter at @techbuzzchina and @thepandaily, or reach out to Rui and Ying-Ying at @ruima and @ginyginy. Our producers are Carol Yin and Kaiser Kuo.