Lesbian dating startup isn’t afraid of China’s new anti-gay censorship
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Photo credit: Lesdo / Tech in Asia

Photo credit: Lesdo / Tech in Asia

Cathy, who does marketing for Lesdo, says the company’s dramas are important to the startup both in terms of bringing in money and building up the community

Tech in Asia

It’s been a couple of weeks since Chinese authorities clamped down yet again on what can be depicted in TV shows, this time zeroing in on “vulgar, immoral, and unhealthy content” that includes dramas showing “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and so on.”

That edict effectively banned a popular 15-part online series called Addicted about romance between four gay high schoolers in China.

That should put Cathy Yang’s startup in the firing line. She works at a social network that caters to China’s lesbians. It’s called Lesdo. It’s not just a dating app. The young company – of which she’s a co-founder – has also created its own web dramas.

A scene from ‘Miss You Always’, a mini movie made by Lesdo.

A scene from ‘Miss You Always’, a mini movie made by Lesdo.

And yet Cathy says she’s “quite optimistic” that the recent strides in acceptance for LGBTQ individuals in China won’t be wiped out by this month’s move by authorities.

“This is not the first time they’ve released something like that,” she says, referring to the blocking of portrayals of same-sex love and relationships on the web. “They do this every year. And every year it’s about the same. And if you examine these protocols that they’re giving – it’s impossible for execution.”

Protective

The Lesdo team has had a hand in two made-for-the-web movies so far, both focusing on women in lesbian relationships. Both remain online.

Cathy reckons the banned series, Addicted, got blocked for reasons other than it showing young guys falling for each other and hooking up.

“A lot of people, they thought this was a signal that authorities are banning the gay themed productions, but actually that is not the case. Because if you look really closely into the storyline, what the story is really about, it’s not just about gay men. It also talked about – you know, one of the leading characters of this show, his father is a government official in the Communist party, and apparently there was quite a bit of corruption going on. So he and his family is rich.”

Some of the Lesdo founders and co-founders. Cathy is pictured bottom right.

Some of the Lesdo founders and co-founders. Cathy is pictured bottom right.

“And so it got political,” she stresses. “It got way too political.”

And that rarely ends well in China.

Addicted had one other problematic sideshow too. If you form a Brangelina-style portmanteau of the names of two leading characters in the show, it becomes “heroin.” So the couple’s nickname references a drug. And that nickname went viral alongside the show itself. That’s how the show got whacked, she states – not the kisses between the baby-faced male actors.

“What I’m trying to say is that if we want to be protective of what we’re doing, there are a lot of ways to do that,” Cathy adds. And so the startup is focusing on the female characters in its series.

Lesdo’s self-produced mini movie, Miss You Always, which runs 35 minutes, has been watched 394,000 times on iQiyi, the spin-off video site from China’s top search engine, Baidu.

Showing people the way they are

Cathy, who does marketing for Lesdo and is suitably talkative, says the dramas are important to the startup both in terms of bringing in money and building up the community. The app focuses on chatting with nearby users.

They’re crucial because there’s no way to bring in new users by traditional means, such as targeted ads at lesbians – or any other sector of the gay community – in China. So the startup decided to build content. “People have a hunger for this because they want to see their own stories. They want to be portrayed the way they actually are,” she says. That’s something Chinese media outlets don’t do well.

After adding up the numbers, the startup reckons that creating or co-producing content – and a few other initiatives it’s experimenting with – works out a much cheaper way of getting new users compared to the other ways that app creators try to rope in new sign-ups. Cathy claims Lesdo is paying just 10 cents per new user, compared to the Chinese industry average of $0.50.

Doing it for themselves

The startup launched in 2012, initially as a social network inside a website before realizing that so many Chinese 20-somethings are so addicted to their smartphones that it made sense to operate only as a mobile app. The app came out in 2013.

A year later, the team got angel funding from GSR Ventures and then in 2015 topped up with an undisclosed pre-series A round from IVP, SOSVentures, and Linear. SOSVentures is the VC behind Chinaccelerator.

“When we first got started, we were a team of local gay women who happened to have their profession in the internet business,” Cathy explains. There were three core founders. One used to work at Google, another at Chinese web giant Sina, creator of the Twitter-esque Weibo. Four co-founders came in later – Cathy included.

“I got to know one of the founders […] about five years ago – so way back when we were just members of the local lesbian community,” she adds. She says the Beijing-based startup has been “kind of like a witness of how the local LGBT community in China is developing.”

They were inspired by an app called Jackd, a U.S.-based gay hook-up app for men, when they noticed how it was taking off in China at the turn of the decade. So they wanted an app a bit like that which focused on lesbians in the country.

“I think one of the reasons why there wasn’t one for lesbian women is because, you see, in order to develop such an app, you need a team who understands the tech, the know-how, as well as understands the community,” she elaborates. But the internet industry is mostly male. “It’s still a boys club.”

China eventually got a homegrown app for gay men with the launch of Blued, which got $30 million in series B funding in 2014. At the last count it has 15 million registered users. Lesdo has direct competition from an app called The L, run by a startup that’s similarly producing content as a way to grow the audience for the social app.

Both Lesdo and The L reckon there are about 35 million women who are lesbians in China, out of about 200 million worldwide. Cathy says Lesdo has 1.5 million registered users, of whom 225,000 are active in the app each day. Virtually all the users are below 30 years of age; 56 percent are 18 to 24, while a quarter are 25 to 29.

Today the Lesdo crew has something else to focus on. It’s White Day. It’s a sort of a mirror image of Valentine’s Day that’s pretty popular in China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, when women give gifts to their partners. The startup has teamed up with a brand to sell a double ring.

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia

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