Our re­porter sees the way of 760 mil­lion WeChat devo­tees

My full (and mostly suc­cess­ful) im­mer­sion in China’s ev­ery­thing app

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS -

I’ve had WeChat on my phone since a va­ca­tion to Bei­jing last year, when friends there es­sen­tially or­dered me to download it. More than 760 mil­lion peo­ple use it reg­u­larly world­wide; it’s ba­si­cally how peo­ple in China com­mu­ni­cate now. It’s ac­tu­ally a lot of trou­ble not to use WeChat when you’re there, and so­cially weird, like re­fus­ing to wear shoes.

In China, 90 per­cent of in­ter­net users con­nect on­line through a mo­bile de­vice, and those peo­ple on aver­age spend more than a third of their in­ter­net time in WeChat. It’s fun­da­men­tally a mes­sag­ing app, but it also serves many of the func­tions of PayPal, Yelp, Face­book, Uber, Ama­zon, Ex­pe­dia, Slack, Spo­tify, Tin­der, and more. Peo­ple use WeChat to pay rent, lo­cate park­ing, in­vest, make a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment, find a one-night stand, do­nate to char­ity. The po­lice in Shen­zhen pay re­wards through WeChat to peo­ple who rat out traf­fic vi­o­la­tors—through WeChat.

It’s noth­ing spe­cial to look at, as far as smart­phone apps go. The first screen that opens is the chat stream; a menu at the bot­tom gets you to other ar­eas, like a WeChat wal­let and a “mo­ments” stream for Face­book-like posts. Com­pa­nies, me­dia out­lets, celebri­ties, and brands also open “of­fi­cial ac­counts” that you can fol­low to get news and pro­mo­tions. The de­sign stands out only for its rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity and calm; the on­line main­stream in China is over­pop­u­lated with weird click-bait and manic GIFs.

Zhang Xiao­long, WeChat’s cre­ator and some­thing of a cult fig­ure in China, has called WeChat a lifestyle. I rolled my eyes when I first heard that. Then I went back to Bei­jing in April.

My col­league Lulu Chen, who cov­ers WeChat’s par­ent, Ten­cent, has sent me the phone numbers of some po­ten­tial con­tacts—but why call when WeChat is so much eas­ier? I use the chat func­tion to set up meet­ings dur­ing my visit. One of my con­tacts men­tions a WeChat con­ven­tion the day af­ter I ar­rive, and so, on a Sun­day after­noon, I show up at the De­sign Ser­vice Cen­ter, an in­dus­trial-chic space in the historic city cen­ter. The crowd is mostly young, a mix of Chi­nese and ex­pa­tri­ate, and the mood is fes­tive. Free wine stands three bot­tles deep on the bar.

I drift by com­pany dis­plays and find my­self at the table for Yoli, a busi­ness that of­fers a sort of speed dat­ing for

English learn­ers: 15-minute on-de­mand tu­tor­ing ses­sions with na­tive speak­ers through WeChat. Two sheets of paper taped to the table each bear a pix­e­lated QR code: Scan one to be­come a teacher, scan the other to be­come a stu­dent.

The Chi­nese term for this rit­ual, sao yi sao, quickly be­comes fa­mil­iar. Ev­ery­one and al­most ev­ery­thing on WeChat has a QR code, and sao yi sao-ing with your phone is both con­stant and strangely sat­is­fy­ing. James, a tanned Amer­i­can with un­ruly blond hair who mans the Yoli table, is here to host a workshop called “How We Built a WeChat App & Re­cov­ered Our De­vel­op­ment Costs Within 24hrs.” He scans my code, which gives him my WeChat pro­file and also gen­er­ates the equiv­a­lent of a friend re­quest; I ac­cept, and we agree to meet dur­ing the week, skip­ping right over the old-fash­ioned niceties of last names and busi­ness cards.

The pre­sen­ta­tions are about to start, and jet lag is kick­ing in. I hurry to the cof­fee counter for an iced Amer­i­cano. There’s a QR code in a plas­tic photo frame. The woman ahead of me is scan­ning it. I try it, and … WeChat fail. I’ve en­tered a credit card into WeChat, but it won’t work, and my WeChat wal­let is empty. I feel dis­tinctly self-con­scious fum­bling around for yuan. I’ve been in WeChat-era China one day, and al­ready cash money feels em­bar­rass­ing.

On Mon­day, I take the sub­way to meet Zhu Xiaox­iao, who’s built a WeChat-based fit­ness busi­ness. On the train, I no­tice a woman mov­ing me­thod­i­cally down the car, stop­ping to talk to the other pas­sen­gers. Is she beg­ging? Tes­ti­fy­ing? Only when she stops be­fore the woman next to me do I get it: She’s ask­ing for QR scans, try­ing to get fol­low­ers for a WeChat of­fi­cial ac­count.

Zhu is an open-faced, bulked-up 25-year-old in a gray T-shirt, blue shorts, and red sneak­ers. He left China for school in Eng­land a skinny kid and re­turned in 2012 a fit­ness buff with the germ of a busi­ness plan— to make and sell protein pow­der. He and a friend de­vel­oped a for­mula, set up man­u­fac­tur­ing and a web­site, and be­gan mar­ket­ing on­line. In late 2013, Zhu started look­ing for in­vestors, and the next Fe­bru­ary he got 2 mil­lion yuan—roughly $300,000—from a seed fund in Bei­jing. At the urg­ing of his in­vestors, he stopped sell­ing the protein pow­der and re­fo­cused on build­ing a fol­low­ing of health en­thu­si­asts, open­ing a WeChat of­fi­cial ac­count that pushed ar­ti­cles on ex­er­cise and diet and lots of pic­tures of six-pack abs. The com­pany, FitTime, quickly racked up 400,000 fol­low­ers and an ad­di­tional 9.8 mil­lion yuan in fund­ing, and launched a stand­alone app.

As WeChat boomed, Zhu de­vel­oped a fit­ness camp on WeChat, an al­ter­na­tive to ex­pen­sive per­sonal train­ing in a phys­i­cal gym for peo­ple al­ready on WeChat all the time. Sign up, and you get grouped into a chat with 15 peo­ple of sim­i­lar height and weight and a per­sonal trainer who’s there to mo­ti­vate you (by mes­sage and emoji) to stick to the diet and video work­out plans. FitTime charges 1,000 yuan for 28 days, and more than 5,000 peo­ple have signed up for at least one month.

Sto­ries of sud­den suc­cess on WeChat abound these days, and Xi Jiu­tian’s is an­other. She’s wear­ing over­size nerd-cool glasses and bright-red lip­stick when we meet for lunch on Tues­day at Cafe Groove. The place looks like some­thing out of my Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood, the mis­matched chairs, the random shelves of books, even the prices—$10-plus for an avo­cado salad. This is all fa­mil­iar—un­til I go to pay with WeChat, and my credit card is re­jected again. I’m def­i­nitely los­ing some face here.

Xi was an in­ter­ac­tion de­signer at Mi­crosoft in Bei­jing be­fore get­ting laid off. She tried de­sign­ing a smart­watch, then con­sult­ing for star­tups. She also be­gan writ­ing on Zhihu, a site sim­i­lar to Quora, about makeup and skin care. In early 2015 she opened Hi­bet­terme—as in, “Hi, bet­ter me”—a WeChat ac­count de­voted to the same top­ics. Af­ter a cou­ple of months, her WeChat fans be­gan urg­ing her to sell beauty prod­ucts. Set­ting up a shop on WeChat’s plat­form took her a cou­ple of days. Xi, like Zhu, had an easy time find­ing fund­ing when she be­gan look­ing last fall. She’d been at it about a week when a friend of a friend put her in touch through WeChat with Eric Tong of Pros & Part­ners Cap­i­tal in Shang­hai. Af­ter they’d mes­saged on WeChat for about 15 min­utes (a lot of their dis­cus­sion was about tat­toos), Tong told her to stop her search and com­mit­ted 4 mil­lion yuan.

Xi in­tro­duces us on WeChat, and Tong re­sponds in­stantly. But when I try to set up a phone call, he ig­nores me. Peo­ple seem to talk on the phone less than they used to—though they’re happy to leave each other WeChat au­dio mes­sages. I ask, by chat, how Hi­bet­terme fits with what he looks for in an in­vest­ment. In a flurry of ab­bre­vi­a­tions, he says he’s look­ing for pro­fes­sion­ally gen­er­ated con­tent across plat­forms like WeChat. It’s an in­vest­ment theme that’s very, very hot, thanks to the Papi im­pact. Papi is Papi Jiang, known for her speed-talk­ing comedic video mono­logues. In April, she auc­tioned off the first ad­ver­tis­ing spot to ap­pear in one of her videos for 22 mil­lion yuan. Um, bub­ble? Tong’s fund stands at about 200 mil­lion yuan now. He ex­pects to have 600 mil­lion by the end of the year.

Even those who aren’t di­rectly sell­ing things or run­ning of­fi­cial ac­counts on WeChat use it con­stantly for work. A friend who runs restau­rants in Bei­jing op­er­ates his en­tire op­er­a­tion, al­most ev­ery­thing ex­cept eat­ing and drink­ing, on WeChat. He trades dish ideas and dis­cusses kitchen op­er­a­tions with the chefs in one group, while his ac­coun­tant keeps him in­formed of pay­ments on an­other. There’s even a group de­voted to flower care at one of the restau­rants. (WeChat in­tro­duced a for­mal en­ter­prise ver­sion in April.) Yoli, the tu­tor­ing com­pany, takes the all-WeChat model to extremes. James, the Amer­i­can I met on Sun­day—his last name, I fi­nally find out, is LaLonde; he’s from Texas—moved to Bei­jing to found a gam­ing com­pany in 2011. He de­cided last Au­gust to com­bine his in­ter­est in lan­guage learn­ing with an ex­per­i­ment in cre­at­ing a busi­ness run en­tirely on WeChat. It made sense; he rarely left the app as it was. He’s met Luke Priddy, one of his two co-founders, only twice in per­son. Priddy lives in New York and co­or­di­nates the grow­ing cadre of teach­ers. The aver­age wait time for a tu­tor­ing ses­sion is 20 se­conds. The tag line for teach­ers is “teach on

the beach”; Priddy once con­ducted a tu­tor­ing ses­sion while float­ing in a pool.

On Wednesday, I need to get to Shang­hai for a day of meet­ings and can’t de­cide whether to fly or take the train. Buy­ing train tick­ets with an app may not sound revo­lu­tion­ary, but in China, I prom­ise you, it is. The in­tri­ca­cies of buy­ing tick­ets used to oc­cupy whole sec­tions of guide­books and re­quire fever­ish strate­giz­ing be­fore hol­i­days. Open­ing WeChat, I check the train sched­ules and get to the point of book­ing an overnight train—but then de­cide to fly. I can’t quite shake my fear of the Chi­nese train sys­tem.

WeChat has made Bei­jing a very dif­fer­ent place from the city I lived in from 2006 to 2009. There’s so much less stand­ing in line and wait­ing, par­tic­u­larly at the bank. Cash used to be king. I paid my rent in cash, my bills, ev­ery restau­rant and shop. Now peo­ple shoot money around on their phones (not all on WeChat, of course, but a lot of it).

There’s also a lot less get­ting lost. Tak­ing a taxi in China used to re­quire get­ting the driver to call your des­ti­na­tion to ver­ify ex­actly where you were go­ing. On this trip, ev­ery­one I visit drops a map into a mes­sage, with the lo­ca­tion pinned, and I show that to the driver. The one time I get turned around, walking to an in­ter­view, I open real-time lo­ca­tion in the WeChat con­ver­sa­tion I’m hav­ing with my host. She finds me on the map and guides me.

No­body’s too cool to use WeChat, or too un­cool. It’s how en­tire fam­i­lies keep in touch. A tech ex­ec­u­tive told me his mother, at 80-plus, uses it for ev­ery­thing; a mar­ket­ing en­tre­pre­neur said his computer-il­lit­er­ate par­ents and his daugh­ters, ages 3 and 5, use it.

By Thurs­day morn­ing, I’ve de­cided some­thing im­por­tant: I don’t like my QR code. The code WeChat ran­domly gen­er­ated for me looks like a piece of candy in a blue wrap­per. When I click on “Change Style” in my pro­file, it goes from bad to worse—a piece of toast? A cat? A pink car? Fi­nally, some al­go­rithm spits out a green, leaf­shaped de­sign. I’ll take it.

I’ve also given up on us­ing my credit card. It’s “ac­cepted” by WeChat, and I’ve set up a PIN and all that, but I guess WeChat can’t change the fact that few lo­cal busi­nesses take in­ter­na­tional cards. WeChat has given life in China a smooth­ness, a qual­ity of ef­fi­ciency I never could have imag­ined. But for a for­eigner like me, at least, it’s still a work in progress.

I mes­sage a Chi­nese friend who’s in the U.S. on a fel­low­ship and ask for a loan. Within min­utes, he’s sent me two hong bao, or red en­velopes—a play on the red en­velopes tra­di­tion­ally used to give gifts of money. They ar­rive as chat mes­sages that say, “Good for­tune and good luck! You’ve re­ceived a red en­ve­lope.” Once I click on them, I have 200 yuan in my WeChat wal­let. Typ­i­cally, you hand out red en­velopes of cash to younger rel­a­tives and friends dur­ing the Lu­nar New Year—to cou­ples get­ting mar­ried, for chil­dren’s birth­days. Now hong bao are used … I don’t want to say willy-nilly, but some­times just for fun. It’s hard to tell what’s great strat­egy and what’s luck in WeChat’s suc­cess, but this hong bao sys­tem is ge­nius. The com­pany wasn’t first with elec­tronic hong bao; that would be Ali­pay, the pay­ment plat­form from Alibaba. But when WeChat in­tro­duced its own sys­tem just be­fore the Chi­nese New Year in 2014, it added a gam­ing el­e­ment. When you send money to a group of peo­ple, one lucky win­ner within the group gets a big­ger wind­fall than the rest, while a few get noth­ing at all. Peo­ple love the el­e­ment of chance, ap­par­ently, be­cause users of WeChat’s wal­let jumped by 100 mil­lion in a month. The fig­ure is now 300 mil­lion. For Chi­nese New Year 2016, 516 mil­lion peo­ple de­liv­ered 32 bil­lion red en­velopes. Mid­morn­ing, I go to the Global Mo­bile In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in the China Na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. Hun­dreds of speak­ers, 20 sum­mits, and a music fes­ti­val—it’s China’s South by South­west, or try­ing to be. I’m ex­hausted from run­ning from floor to floor to catch ses­sions. I stop at a cafe on the sec­ond floor to get cof­fee, my new WeChat riches teed up. They don’t take WeChat. At a tech con­fer­ence.

The next day, I re­turn to the con­fer­ence to talk to E Hao, co-CEO of the group that or­ga­nizes it. I’m ac­costed in the el­e­va­tor by a young woman who sees that I’m for­eign, ex­plains that her com­pany or­ga­nizes ex­changes with for­eign com­pa­nies, and de­mands to scan my WeChat QR code. “Nice to meet you!” she sings, striding off with­out ever telling me her name or ask­ing for mine. E Hao is hoarse af­ter a late night at the event’s open­ing gala at the Olympic Bird’s Nest sta­dium. His heavy metal band, CXO, newly formed with var­i­ous fel­low ex­ec­u­tives, per­formed for the first time. He shows me his WeChat mes­sage stream: 3,015 un­read mes­sages. He says he’s been re­ly­ing on hong bao to thank and mo­ti­vate his over­worked em­ploy­ees through the long days run­ning up to the event, send­ing out 1,000 yuan at a time. He sends me 100 yuan to demon­strate. I’m not sure about the eti­quette. Is this for demon­stra­tion only? Should I send it back? I do, even­tu­ally.

When I get back to New York, I join a FitTime WeChat boot camp. The rest of my group seems to be Chi­nese stu­dents study­ing in the U.S., in­clud­ing the trainer, who’s in Iowa. First, there’s the hor­ror of tak­ing a selfie in span­dex and send­ing it to a stranger, then the awk­ward­ness of pho­tograph­ing ev­ery meal, with one hand held in a fist be­side the plate for per­spec­tive on serv­ing size. If I’m lucky, the trainer sends me a thumbs-up emoji in re­sponse. She fre­quently has to re­mind me of the rules, though: No kim­chi, for ex­am­ple—too much salt, leads to bloat­ing. The whole thing is vaguely hu­mil­i­at­ing. On the other hand, I’ve lost a few pounds, and I now know the char­ac­ters for chia seeds in Chi­nese. And I’m on WeChat all day long. <BW>

Shake, which con­nects the user with a random per­son to mes­sage with

The ba­sic mes­sage stream

The WeChat wal­let

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