GDI Exclusive Interview: BlueCity CEO Reflects on Historic 2020 and Portfolio Expansion

BlueCity is one of the largest LGBTQ social networking companies in the world. Based in China, it has changed the way that same-sex couples meet and interact in Asian countries that were extremely suppressive just 20 years ago.

The company mainly operated through Blued, but following its notable public listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange, it has gone on to acquire two more communities aimed at LGBTQ millennials.

GDI caught up with BlueCity’s Founder, Chairman and CEO Baoli Ma to learn more about the history of the business, its cultural significance and the different ways it is helping people socialise all over the world.

Read the full interview below:

As an introduction, can you explain what exactly BlueCity is and what its position is within the online dating landscape?

BM: We’re a world-leading online LGBTQ platform offering a full suite of services to help foster connections and enhance the well-being of the LGBTQ community. Our mobile app Blued forms the platform’s central hub, which provides location-based services (LBS) and live-streaming services, health care and family planning services. To date, we’ve connected 54 million registered users worldwide, and have created the largest online LGBTQ community in China, India, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

When it comes to online dating, we’re firmly focused on LGBTQ, serving both the gay and lesbian communities, with different apps serving different purposes for gay men, including Blued (LBS and content) as well as Finka (swipe) and LESDO (LBS and live-streaming), which serves China’s lesbian community. The latter two apps are BlueCity’s most recent acquisitions.

We’re also exploring more innovative ways of “matching” and dating, such as live streaming, and our new “Match” function (currently available only on the Latin American version of our app).

You were one of the early pioneers of LGBTQ online dating and social networking in China. Could you tell us a bit about what it was like for LGBTQ people in the early 2000s?

BM: To provide some key context, homosexual acts were decriminalized in China in 1997, and homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 2001. Back then, very few people had personal computers but they did start frequenting Internet Cafes, where they could explore their identity and find like-minded people.

Using the Internet, I got a better understanding of what “gay” meant and realized that there were in fact many people like me, and that homosexuality was more accepted in some other countries.

Deeply concerned by a lack of social recognition, depression and even suicide among some LGBTQ members in China at the time, I wondered if I could make a website to help many people like myself, to tell them that homosexuality is not a perversion, that they don’t have to feel inferior, and that they don’t have to commit suicide, and also to help people better understand homosexuality. So at that time I began learning how to build a website, and made one called My Blue Memory, or Danlan.

Blued was first launched in 2012, how has it evolved in that time to become the platform that we see today?

BM: When it launched in 2012, Blued was the only gay social network app in China, and ranked ninth on China’s App Store within its first week. By 2015, Blued’s international edition had been launched, and our live-streaming business kicked off the following year.

We launched Bluedbaby on the app in 2017, a platform dedicated to providing personalized family planning services for LGBT+ individuals. Working with several overseas associations, this provides services such as translation and consultation to help individuals navigate foreign surrogacy services.

In 2019, the team introduced He Health, a platform focused on providing convenient and reliable online health services for men, such as HIV prevention and tests and advice regarding sexual dysfunction.

Available in 13 languages today, Blued has connected 58 million registered users worldwide and nearly half of the monthly active users are outside of China (as of Sept. 2020). As of 2019, the app was the largest online LGBTQ community in China, India, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

What are some of your favourite things about the platform, and what are you most proud of?

BM: With the platform’s innovative features like live-streaming and “Match”, we’ve enabled dating and matching to happen in new and exciting ways.

As I mentioned before, we’re proud of our work in HIV prevention. During 2019, more than 50,000 tests were done in more than 200 partner testing centers in 26 cities across China via online appointment through the app. A similar service is offered widely in markets where Blued operates, including Brazil, India, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, to facilitate testing, prevention and education in conjunction with local governments and health institutions.

We’re also proud about some of our recent COVID-19-related initiatives, including our first-ever global online pride event #StayProud, held in June last year. The event invited users around the world to safely unite and celebrate the diversity of the community despite the pandemic, while all profits raised from it went to support LGBTQ+ people experiencing food insecurity during this difficult time.

BlueCity completed its IPO on the NASDAQ market at the beginning of July. It was very significant for an LGBTQ Chinese company to be listed on an American market so were there any major challenges that you faced during the process?

BM: Due to the pandemic, we took most of our operations for the listing online, hosting a virtual bell ringing ceremony from Beijing rather than New York.

There are currently some uncertainties regarding Chinese stocks being listed in the US. Despite this, we remain confident of our global expansion, backed by our outstanding services and honest business practices, and all the while never straying from our mission of empowering the LGBTQ community in every aspect of their daily lives.

Overall, we’re thrilled to make it happen and extremely proud of this historical achievement, and even prouder of our many millions of brave users around the world.

Generally speaking, how have the first six months as a publicly-traded company been?

BM: Going public was a historic milestone for us and the global LGBTQ community we represent, while it also challenges us to improve our corporate governance as well as create even better products and services. Since the listing, I now personally spend more time on strategy and management, including significant moves like our recent acquisition of LESDO and Finka, as well as regularly communicating with our investors.

Having investors that share in our vision and have faith in our long-term value has emboldened us in expanding our brand and our goal for global equality. However, I’m still anchored to that same commitment from the early days of Danlan: of providing the very best products and services for our unique community. For example, I still regularly meet the product team to discuss areas to improve when I find them.

With all that said, we as a company continue to work hard towards our mission, and I believe we have adjusted to the recent changes well.

You’ve had an eye on expanding the company’s portfolio and have made two acquisitions so far. Starting with LESDO, why was that an acquisition that you wanted to make and what are your visions for the future?

BM: Our acquisition of LESDO represents a great opportunity for us to enter and consolidate currently fragmented lesbian market in China. With the acquisition, we’ll continue to enhance and improve services as well as deepen our connections within the community.

LESDO will build the foundation for the success of our future acquisitions. Through acquisitions, we can broaden our community beyond homosexual men, and refine and enrich our service offering to drive further monetization opportunities looking ahead.

It is growing quickly, with total monthly active users growing 1.2 times from when BlueCity acquired the brand in August 2020, up to November, which is part of a trend we expect will continue in 2021. We also rolled out live-streaming services in December last year to complement its already excellent service.

Our vision and long-term mission is to provide lifetime services and create a safe and secure oasis to satisfy the needs of the global LGBTQ community, in which the LESDO and Finka acquisitions play a significant role.

The acquisition of Finka followed in November. What can you tell us about the brand?

BM: The acquisition augments BlueCity’s leadership in the LGBTQ community and enables us to enrich our product matrix by serving the community’s younger generation.

With approximately 3 million registered users as of September 2020, the Finka app is mostly used by millennials who live in China’s first- and second-tier cities, young people who are seeking a better quality of life and are more willing to pay for high-quality services.

With Finka’s features more appealing to young overseas users, we envision huge growth potential for Finka to internationalize, backed by BlueCity’s years of experience in global expansion and operation.

While significant steps have been made in the past two decades, China can still be a difficult place for people to be LGBTQ. What steps do you think the authorities and society need to take to create a more inclusive nation?

BM: We believe this depends on where you live in – in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, LGBTQ members can find established clubs catering to their community and walk hand-in-hand on the street with their partners without difficulty. Indeed, many young people have come out.

It is always more difficult in small towns and rural areas, like everywhere else in the world. I think that’s also the value provided by Blued as a very inclusive platform. On our live streaming platform, you can not only find young people from big cities, but also middle-aged men or even the elderly. The app is a space where they can be their true selves and gain a sense of belonging.

We’re also encouraged to see organizations like China PFLAG promoting awareness and helping LGBTQ members along with their families and communities tackle the most challenging issues they face in their life.

What activity can we expect to see from BlueCity and the rest of the portfolio in the next 12 months?

BM: In terms of product, we’ll be bringing more tailored products and services for global users, as we’ve been doing with the localized Latin American version of our app.

We expect to further develop He Health, which primarily provides HIV-related services and all-round men’s health services. While it currently represents a small fraction of our total revenue, BlueCity sees great potential for the platform in line with growing awareness of HIV prevention and treatment among the LGBTQ community. To back this up, revenue from He Health grew approximately 6 times year-over-year to RMB 9.6 million (USD 1.4 million) in this quarter alone.

Last but not least, we have invested in some LGBTQ movies and shows, such as “Made in Rooftop” which closed the Seoul Pride Film Festival in November 2020. Set in a rooftop house, the movie celebrates the love stories of gay couples in their 20s. I’m very much looking forward to global audiences being able to enjoy the production.

Visit the BlueCity website here.