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Forbes - - Leaderboard New Billionaire -

in photo-ob­sessed asia, cai Wen­sheng’s im­age-edit­ing apps have be­come megahits— with­out a flicker of a real busi­ness model.

“WE ARE BA­SI­CALLY No. 1 in this in­dus­try,” says Cai Wen­sheng, the 46-year-old co­founder of pop­u­lar app­maker Meitu, de­liv­er­ing his boast from an art-filled four-story villa in China’s south­east­ern Fu­jian Prov­ince. “We have seen no less than 100 com­peti­tors, but they all come in sec­ond.”

To the vic­tor go the spoils: Cai is worth an es­ti­mated $1.3 bil­lion with re­port­edly at least a 35% stake in Meitu, cre­ator of 14 Pho­to­shop-like apps. It has raised over $360 mil­lion from in­vestors such as Fox­conn and Tiger Global Man­age­ment, and its apps at­tract more than 360 mil­lion ac­tive monthly users. The selfie reigns supreme in Asia, where shutterbugs ob­sess over un­blem­ished images even more than Amer­i­cans do.

Cai was a high school dropout who sold cos­met­ics and hand­bags in the Fu­jian coun­try­side be­fore found­ing a wangzhi dao­hang— a Web direc­tory of sorts—that sold to Google in 2007 for $20 mil­lion. He and a part­ner, the more de­sign-fo­cused Wu Xin­hong, started Meitu in 2008. It has been a hit, but can it ac­tu­ally make a profit in photo apps? So far, Cai has es­chewed ad­ver­tis­ing for fear that it will turn off his loyal users.

He wants Meitu to move into e-com­merce and games soon, though he doesn’t of­fer pre­cise de­tails. For rev­enue, the com­pany re­lies largely on its line of smart­phones, of which it has sold some 200,000 a year since 2013, an an­a­lyst says. (China’s Xiaomi sold 70 mil­lion hand­sets last year.) One sell­ing point of the Meitu smart­phone: It’s a su­per­size gadget with a front­fac­ing 21-megapixel cam­era—in­tended, nat­u­rally, for selfie fa­nat­ics.

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