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 danlan.com 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.
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.”
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.
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.