Taboo-busting gay app a market success
By Tian Yi

2016-09-10 18:15 GMT+8

15km to Beijing

Ask any gay man in urban China what social media platforms he most frequently uses and there is a fair chance he will be among the 27 million users of Blued, a startup application launched by an entrepreneur with 16 years’ experience negotiating the challenges of running LGBT websites in the country.
Decorated with rainbows and paintings of hunky male bodies, Blued’s office in Beijing is filled with young men and only a few women. Almost three-quarters of the workforce are homosexual. The office’s unisex bathroom speaks for the startup’s unusual culture.
While the Blued headquarters is very LGBT-friendly and gay culture is gaining more space on the Internet in China, society outside the office and offline is generally not so open in a country where there is still a lot of discrimination against homosexuals. 
Half of China’s gay men use Blued, according to Geng Le, the company’s CEO. From social networking, LGBT news to live broadcasting, Blued bills itself as a portal into and a platform for the gay community, working to promote LGBT rights. 
When it was launched in 2013, the main function of the app was letting users identify other users nearby or based on a location search. Blued enjoyed rapid growth immediately. Gradually, it brought in broadcasting and online shopping.
With over 20% of Blued users spending more than two hours on the app daily, it now earns tens of millions of yuan in turnover per month, mostly from advertisements and live broadcasting. And the startup recently finished a series-C round of financing. 
“There is rigid demand for our application among the gay community in China, whether they are looking for friends or a relationship,” Geng explained.
“It is very hard for homosexual people to identify people with the same sexual orientation in daily life – you can’t just ask and normally people don’t have the guts to come out of the closet. People tend to find like-minded company without exposing their identity.”

It was never the cost of starting the business that worried Geng, but the discrimination that comes with the territory. 

Recruiting problems came first. “We got thousands of resumes initially and chose 100 for the second round, but no replies were received after we informed the applicants about the concept of our company,” Geng recalled. Thus, Blued relied on word of mouth to find employees.

As an openly gay entrepreneur and a former policeman, 39-year-old Geng has faced his own struggle with self-identification. He launched gay website in the year 2000, when he was still on the police force in his hometown of Qinhuangdao in north China's Hebei Province, partly as a way to work out his own problems and partly as a way of helping others with similar issues solve theirs.

Back then, he faced frequent obstructions from the government. Whenever the website was shut down by local officials, he and his team had to move their web server to a new city. In 2008, with Beijing presenting itself to the world as a modern and inclusive city ahead of its hosting of the Olympics, Geng decided to settle in the Chinese capital. 

The team concentrated more on government liaison after their move to Beijing. “I believe we have changed the inherent thinking of lots of officials by asking sincerely for help and letting them see the changes we brought to LGBT people’s lives,” Geng said, explaining how he tries to change people’s attitude to homosexuality after first piquing their interest with the potential business value in this community. 

"Business thinking is a very gentle approach, from which I hope can surface the existence, value and needs of a good amount of the LGBT community in China."

Geng Le, CEO of Blued.

There are big opportunities to establish businesses dedicated specifically to the needs of the LGBT community in a variety of fields including retail, tourism, entertainment, insurance and healthcare. 

Articles and discussions about gay issues are getting more and more interest online. China’s LGBT group, estimated at about 5% of the country’s population, presents a growing consumption market worth 300 billion US dollars. The “pink economy” is increasingly red-hot.

“Compared to our heterosexual peers, the future is not so clear for us, so I think that’s why we tend to consume more freely without thinking too much about the pressures of life,” said Liu Xiao, a Blued user who also presents live broadcasts for the app under the name Xiao A.

And Liu likes to buy things tailored for the gay community. “The existence of LGBT-preference products and brands means a lot to us, as if these things are speaking in our name.”

Blued user Liu Xiao shared his connection with the app and the experience of coming out to his family

While concentrating on cold, hard commerce and opening up the wallets of people like Liu, Geng Le has also partnered with government officials and institutes including UNAIDS and the WHO to run welfare programs. Blued users can make an appointment for a free HIV test through the app.

The approach has of course benefitted the brand, with Geng’s media exposure peaking when he met with Premier Li Keqiang during a conference on AIDS prevention in 2012.

Success is obvious on the business side, while on the application itself, some users described it as more like a hook-up tool despite all those functions. So is Blued a hook-up tool or a LGBT campaigning force?

Geng does not deny the physiological function of the app, but believes that the impulsion for sex often pales when users think about the broader issues at stake as the LGBT community battles for equality.

There is lots of space for Blued to expand. It is looking to purchase a lesbian-focused app and is reaching its tentacles overseas. A global LGBT market worth three trillion US dollars is capturing businesses’ attention. But how bold players like Blued can combine business with social good remains an important question.

Pink Economy:The term has been used to describe business activity driven by the needs and consumption patterns of the LGBT community.