RudeVC: Don’t shoot the messenger (App)

Oct 30, 2013
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In continuity of last week’s piece on the arrival the Japanese mobile game models to Europe, I thought it appropriate to discuss another tech trend in Asia which makes me enthusiastic for potential investment opportunities, even here on the old continent: the next-generation of mobile messaging apps.

Most Europeans are familiar with WhatsApp, Viber, Kik, eBuddy, and Nimbuzz. However, there’s a new generation of messengers which are taking Asia by storm. Five notable products come to mind, which dominate the category in one respect or another, though I’m sure there are several more that I’m overlooking: WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk, Cubie, and Laiwang.

While the number of registered users tends to be widely communicated, actual engagement metrics are more opaque.

Most likely, Tencent-owned WeChat counts the largest active user base, mainly thanks to its dominance in China. Last week on an exploratory trip to three of China’s largest cities with some of our portfolio companies, I was rapidly schooled in the importance of be-friending my counterparts on WeChat in order to thank them for their hospitality (I became a WeChat user just last week). Corporate executives, entrepreneurs, VCs, and investment bankers alike all seemed to favor communication over WeChat.

I guess WeChat’s ubiquity irritated Alibaba chairman Jack Ma, who last week purportedly issued an internal memo to employees threatening to withhold annual bonuses from those who hadn’t accrued at 1east 100 friends on Alibaba’s Laiwang messaging app.

Korea’s KakaoTalk has sewn up its local market but struggled overseas.

Line, owned by NHN based in Japan (but whose parent company is Naver in Korea), is the messenger I’ve been using most actively ever since one of my portfolio CEOs introduced me to it last year. Line is really more of a comprehensive platform than a mere product, and with its torrential growth of services like games, updates, social networking, I can see why Facebook should take note. The direct calling feature (and that fact that it represents the best way to communicate with my Japanese contacts) makes Line my preferred app for both business and personal use.

Cubie, based in Taiwan, appears to have found a unique positioning in allowing users to add effects, doodles and stickers to their photos before sharing. Moreover, sharing Youtube videos seems to be easiest on Cubie, and the app cleverly enables automatic transfer of all Line and WeChat friends during the onboarding process.

So coming back to those investment opportunities…

Well, the obvious one is that as these messaging apps jostle to prove their mettle internationally, European platforms with a highly-engaged user base could represent natural partners (or targets) for the Asian giants. A platform with high retention in an area outside messaging would strike me as more appealing than a messaging player with mediocre engagement.

Perhaps more significantly however, is the breadth of potential business models that stem from these messaging platforms.

Take the concept of stickers, which even Facebook recently espoused but Line had already elevated to a brand new dimension. Not only do consumers monetize in droves to download the hottest new virtual sticker packs to insert into their chat conversations, but people spend real dollars (actually, Yen) to purchase physical stickers too. Take a look at this end cap in a well-known Japanese chain store.

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Talk about stickiness.

Furthermore, Line found a way to connect TV advertising to its user base in a totally disruptive means of multi-screen, fully-tracked cross-promotion. Tom Limongello explains this phenomenon in his piece called Lining up the Channels, which I strongly recommend reading right now.

So perhaps an $8 billion valuation in Line’s forthcoming IPO should not be surprising.

But what works in Asia does not necessarily work in Europe, at least not identically. European startups that can crack the combination which couples local user behavior and content for these platforms may gain some pretty interesting traction. Line has already penetrated practically 1/3 of Spain’s population, and I suspect others are on the way. Needless to say, if you’re working on this, I’d be honored to hear from you.