Geng Le: For 18 Years, I Have Been the Voice of 15 Million Gay People in China



· 2015.07.14 15:54

Maybe we will get listed on NASDAQ in a few years, or maybe we will fail to be a thought leader, but everything I have done is worthwhile. At least the world will know there’s one person called Geng Le was willing to take a stand and come out of the closet, and that he tried to change gay people’s life with technology and make a difference. I really think this is something and I am willing to work hard for my course.

(Chinese Version)

Editor’s Note:

On the very MIIC(short for Mobile Internet Innovative Conference, hosted by TMTpost and Business Value), Blued’s founder Geng Le announced that the Series C round funding of Blued had already started. Blued is showing the world the potential of rainbow economy. And according to statistics from many research institutes, it’s estimated that gay people in China consume about US$30 million annually.

A few days after the Supreme Court of the US finally legalized gay marriage nationwide and rainbow flags were all over the social media, Geng Le, the founder of Danlan, China’s largest social networking site for gay people, shared his personal story as an entrepreneur in the past 15 years with the audience on the 2015 MIIC.

In the article Heads Up! Chinese Gay Dating Apps are Going International we have a detailed report on his product Blued. And last November, the next day after Apple’s CEO Tim Cook officially came out, Geng Le announced to the media that his company received US$30 million in Series B round funding and the company’s valuation had hit US$300 million

From carrying servers around different cities to getting a remark from the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, from working alone for his website to owing a office of over 800 square meters that can no longer accommodate his staff, from relying on donations from others to getting US$ 30 million in funding, and from being alone to having 15 million gay users by his side, Geng Le’s personal experience as an entrepreneur is in fact a reflection of the LGBT community’s struggle to fight for rights and respect in China.

Geng Le, a former police officer, decided to quit his job and devote fully into his entrepreneurship after founding Danlan.org. His story might inspire some young entrepreneurs today and make them realize the most important thing in starting a business: persistence.

The following is the full transcript of Geng Le’s speech on the 2015 MIIC, edited by TMTpost:

You know what? Today’s Mental Camp section was actually designed for me. All these years, I have been a nutcase in many people’s eyes. But nevertheless, I want to share my personal story as an entrepreneur with you today.

Just then, a few CEOs showed us many inspiring stuffs about products and technologies. And I would like to do something different here. Many people here are young people, who are kickstarting their startup projects. I haven’t actually been in the business for a long time either. So I want to tell you what it was like to make my own business work and all those things I have been through. I want to let you see what our team and products are like.

I was born and raised in Qinhuangdao, a coastal city in northern China, thereby I have a deep connection with the ocean. That’s why I named all my products ‘blue’, the color of ocean. First I made the Danlan(Light Blue) web portal and subsequently I developed an app called Blued. Before all these happened, I used to be a cop. I went to the police training school at 16 years old and graduated at the age of 19. Ever since then I had been a policeman, for 16 years.

After graduation, I started to realize I was different from my classmates. Everyone else was into girls and was eager to find a girlfriend, and some of them were already engaged and were preparing for a wedding. And that was the very moment I realized that I didn’t play the same team, I preferred men. At first, I was very confused. Back at that time, Internet had just started to become popular in China so I was able to do some research online. However, the information available online was very negative. Everything I found told me that I was sick and an abomination, and that being gay could be cured by electroshock therapy. To be honest, I was terrified. And I thought to myself if I were to seek treatment, I would have to do it in another city because I didn’t want anybody to find out this secret of mine.

But then I started to look through foreign websites, most of which told a completely different story. I learned that gay people took up 5% of the total population and it’s not a sickness, but rather just a matter of sexuality. I was in heaven when I was reading some websites because I finally learned that I wasn’t alone in the world. Many materials I found online also told me that many Chinese gay men committed suicide for being discriminated or seeing no future in their life. An idea occurred to me after I read those tragic stories: What if I made a website for gay people and do some good? I wanted the website to be a place where gay people could share their personal stories with others and find positive and informative information on homosexuality. Besides that, they could find other people just like them on the website. So in 2000, I built Danlanhuiyi(Light Blue Memory), which later was known as Danlan. That was my earliest team, just myself. During that period, I worked as a police officer in day time and pretended to be straight by discussing hot girls with my friends. At night, I secretly managed my website in my room. Looking back, I was trying to be true to myself at that time.

In 2006, after 6 years of operating the website on my own, I began to feel tired, almost exhausted by the two sided life. My job as a police officer kept me busy and consumed a lot of my energy. At the age of 26, I had already become the youngest deputy director of Qinhuangdao’s public security bureau. I got promoted fast, and I had tons of things to handle, so I needed help to manage my website. By then, there were already hundreds of gay websites in China and I approached a few webmasters whose websites had neat design or great technical support. I convinced them to shut down their websites and come work with me. Eventually, they did join me.

Our earliest office was very simple and small. We didn’t make much money either. We relied heavily on people’s donations. Some netizens would donate 50 yuan and some would donate 100 yuan to us. At one time an entrepreneur even gave us 20,000 yuan and told us what we were doing was great. Even under these tough circumstances, my colleagues and I were still very happy at that time. They got a very small income from keeping the website running and I was literally making no money from this. It was tough but we were truly happy because we had faith in our course and we really believed that we were doing something great. Everyone in my team was gay and we all knew we were doing this for ourselves.

By 2007, our team had grown stronger and our website became the largest gay website in China. In 2008, when China was hosing the Olympic Games, Xinhua News Agency mentioned us in an English news report which told the world that there were also gay bars and gay websites in China, naming us specifically. Xinhua News even posted our website in their news report. We all thought it was a great opportunity for us. During 2006 and 2007, our website was being forced to shut down frequently by the authority. During that period, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was just established and every year it would ‘cleanse’ the Chinese Internet two or three times. Each time, it was the gay websites that hadn’t got any obscene or unhealthy content that took the hit. Why? Honestly, we didn't know either. We tried to contact the authorities and talk about this issue a few times. There was one time when Shanghai’s police bureau shut down our website and we called back to ask what we had done wrong, and the answer was disappointing. They thought gay people were abnormal and that being gay was against social morals, and that’s why they shut down our website.

But the thing is, homosexuality is not defined as against social morals in any law or regulation of China.

At that time, we changed our operating city frequently. We literally had to carry the servers ourselves to another city once the police bureau in this town shut us down. In 2009, we came to Beijing. Back in Qinhuangdao, we only had nine people in our team. We were having a hard time recruiting technical support talents since we couldn’t make much money and people weren’t willing to live and work in a third tier city. Also, these nine colleagues of mine couldn’t find a boyfriend. They needed a bigger city to explore. Small city just wasn’t open-minded enough when it comes to homosexuality, which was still much of a taboo to be brought up in Chinese society. When we were still working in Qinhuangdao in a rented apartment, we always worried that some people would just show up at our door and asked us to shut down the website. We were under tremendous pressure. We even started to question our course.

After the Olympic Games, we started to think about giving Beijing a shot. If we could make it in Beijing, then we would make our website big. But if we failed, I would come back and continue to be a police officer. That was basically the plan. So I asked an extended leave at the bureau saying that I needed a vacation to relax. Then my team and I put everything we had on a truck and drove all the way from Qinhuangdao to Beijing. We had no money, so we could only afford an apartment outside the Beijing fifth ring road near the Li Shui bridge. The apartment we rented was on the first floor and it had a basement. We lived in the basement and worked on the first floor. That was my first time to leave home and I was extremely homesick. That’s why I chose a place near the railway. The metro’s railway was just outside our door.

When we first came to Beijing, we took our very first group photo. And a few days ago, we took a new one. When I saw the picture, I suddenly realized that we had grown old in just a few years. We have been through so much.

The turning point for the team was in 2012. “Geng Le, what you are doing in Beijing is very interesting. You are a cop but you also run a website. You lead a bunch of people making your own startup, and that makes you Beijing drifters as well,” a journalist friend from Sohu asked me, “Can I make a documentary on you?” At that time I hadn’t resigned from the bureau yet so I was afraid that the documentary would affect my private life. But my friend assured me it would only be on the men section of Sohu, so I said yes to the idea. However, after the documentary was filmed, Sohu really liked it and put it on the front page where everybody could see. Everybody was calling me that day telling me that they had watched the documentary. I also got calls from my superiors asking me to return to my post and drop my website in Beijing.

I went back to Qinhuangdao the next morning. When I arrived at the door of the police station, I noticed that colleagues who used to be friendly to me were giving me weird stares. Many colleagues were staring at me from the windows above. Some even ignored me when I greeted them in the elevator.

“If you are working for Sohu or Baidu, we would totally support you. But running a gay website makes everything complicated. Leaders are under great pressure from this,” my superior told me, “Now you have two options. You either shut your website down and stay here and be a cop, or you quit your job here and go run that website of yours. And of course, if you choose to stay you wouldn’t have the opportunity to get promoted again.” I understood the indications behind the conversation. He probably wanted me to resign. I got my first uniform when I was 16. And for 16 years, I had been working in a police uniform and I had grown attachment to what I did in the bureau. It was my childhood dream to be a police officer. It was a tough decision for me to make. 90% of my schoolmates from the police training school and colleagues told me I shouldn’t quit my job. Running a gay website just didn’t seem promising, in fact, risky, in their minds. I was having a difficult time making the ultimate call.

“If you choose to stay in the bureau, what’s next for us then?” a member of my team in Beijing asked me. His words struck me like lightning. If I gave up on them, all my colleagues who shut down their own websites and came all this way with me from Qinhuangdao to Beijing and followed my own course, what would happen to them then?

Apparently, I decided to resign. My parents disapproved my decision but still they accepted it. I still remember their final saying: don’t regret the decision that you have made today. So I handed in my resignation that day, and I noticed that my team members were very happy. In the afternoon I went to the police station and applied for a passport. I wanted to prove to myself that I had set myself free. My passport was issued on March 12th, 2012.

This is a picture of the team when we first came to Beijing, in a community near Lishui Bridge. Everybody was happy at that time. At the end of 2012, smart phones were sweeping through the market and everybody was saying that apps would be the future trend. However, many companies couldn’t see the opportunity. We got lucky this time, for gay people usually have better sense for new things. My friends back then were using an American gay dating app. It was in English and it was slow. So I thought why couldn’t we just make our own social app for thousands of millions of gay people in China, so that they could communicate with each other? That was our chance.

So at the end of the year we launched Blued. In just three weeks it skyrocketed to the top ninth on the social app leaderboard. Blued was surging. Then many investors started to notice us. On April, 2013, I got a call from an investor, telling me they wanted to invest in my business. All these years I had been working as a cop so I didn’t really know how Internet industry worked, and I didn’t know how investment worked either. I hesitated for quite a long time because I wasn't sure if we should take his investment or not, and that if we accepted his offer, how long we should continue to take money from them, and how. Finally, we took his offer, an angel investment of 3 million yuan. This 3 million yuan investment was very helpful. With the money we expanded our team and continue to refine our products. I always joked with the female colleagues in the team, telling them that we would not discriminate them even though they were the minority in the office.

We were developing at a rocket speed. But later a new obstacle occurred: many of my friends became HIV positive. It crushed me. I had always felt HIV was something distant, a terrible disease that only existed in news and textbooks. But suddenly friends around me told me they got it. It was a really tough reality. In just half a year, about three of my friends got it.

I was heartbroken. I asked them why they didn’t protect themselves properly. And they told me that they didn’t have the awareness to use protection. Then it occurred to me that we could do something about raising the awareness of HIV prevention. After all, our goal was to make products that could serve the gay community. We needed to make sure that our people could live a healthy life. So we approached the Center of Diseases Control and Prevention in Changping District. I told them that I was the webmaster of the largest gay website in China and they were thrilled. The center director told me they needed me because they couldn’t find any gay people and I was their best channel to get in touch with the gay community. So our work for public benefits began. We collaborated with the center and they really liked the cooperation. They thought highly of us and even recommended us to the Center of Diseases Control and Prevention of Beijing, who later recommended us to the Ministry of Health, saying that we were a very devoted team and we never asked for anything in return for our work. That’s how the story went. We then found ourselves starting to work with the WHO on this matter.

On November 28th, 2012, the municipal government of Beijing informed us that a high-level official wanted to meet me. I was confused and I didn’t really know whom I was going to meet. But the informer just told me to get prepared and think about something to say and report to him the things I would like to say. It wasn’t until I was in the Ministry of Health that I realized it was Li Kejing, the premier of China, that I was about to meet. Besides me there were also eleven people, all of whom were directors of HIV prevention organizations. Some worked for the government, some worked for the UN, and others like me worked for NGOs. I was the first one to shake hands with primer Li. I was standing at the side of the hallway and I saw him walking towards us. He was a bit thinner and shorter than what I usually saw on the TV. When he walked to me I was extremely nervous, and my mind just went blank. Then I just shook his hands and said: “Greetings, premier. I run a gay website.” The premier was astonished and shook my hands and said: “Thanks for your hard work.”

I was on the news that night and I told my mom about it. After watching the news she called me and asked me whether I had got HIV or not.

Meeting with the premier literally changed our company’s fate. It sent a message to the mass that homosexuality was not a terrible disease nor a political problem, but something to do with our everyday life. Many people around us are gay, but the problem is we don’t know who they are, since they do not dare to come out of the closet. Why? It’s because they are afraid that they would be discriminated. But now we can change gay people’s life through Internet and technology.

On November last year, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook came out publicly. And the very next day, we made an official announcement that we had received a series B round funding of US$30 million and the valuation of our company had hit US$300 million. At present, the Series C round has already started, which would probably be announced by the end of the year. We are doing great right now, and we have shown the world the meaning of our existence and the potential of rainbow economy. Many research institutes released their studies on the industry structures and they estimated that China consumed about US$300 billion annually.

Recently I have been to Netherland and an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Netherland asked me how many users we have on Blued. I told him the number would be over 20 million by then. They were amazed since it’s like half of their country’s population. And I told them it was quite true. Many industry giants wanted to invest in our company and thought we were too expensive for them. But we became friends still. Our 800 square meters office can no longer accommodate our staff. We need expansion, a bigger office. We aim to be one of the elite Chinese Internet companies. By now we have already amassed several millions of users overseas. In the past, our slogan was “change gay people’s life with technology”. And now, we want to have a new one, that is, “no matter who you are and what your sexuality is, man or woman, you are equal and deserve a life of respect”. We want Blued to be a product that can provide love and warmth to people that are different from the majority. We want it to mean something to people.

I want the mass to see a different life, a different story, and start to think why they discriminate other people, through my stories, my company’s progress and media’s reports. Maybe we will get listed on NASDAQ a few years later, or maybe we will fail to be a thought leader, but everything I have done is worthwhile. At least the world will know there’s one person called Geng Le was willing to take a stand and come out of the closet, and that he tried to change gay people’s life with technology and make a difference. I really think this is something and I am willing to work hard for my course.

What follows is the Q&A section of the conference:

Audience: Hi Mr. Geng! As a normal straight person I have never discriminated gay people.

Geng Le: What you have just said is actually very discriminating.

Audience: Personally speaking, I very admire you. I think as a gay man you change many people’s lives, not just gay people’s lives. Young people and students who have just finished the college entrance exam, they all have their unique sides that they don’t dare to show. Their unique characters are suppressed by the Chinese education system. But only when we are true to ourselves can we find happiness and feel belonged. Only in this way can we create a diverse ecosystem.

Audience: Hello Mr. Geng! We have been keeping close tags on gay dating websites in China. Now such websites are countless on the market. So besides doing public benefit service, is there any difference in Blued’s operation that sets it apart from the majority? Another question is that though doing public benefit service is good in terms of social responsibilities and the development of the company, but would Blued lose the strength to continue on eventually? What’s Blued’s future blueprint for its business model?

Geng Le: We have the largest user base, and that’s what makes us stand out. I think in every vertical industry the ones who have a bigger user base will always win. The Matthew Effect is quite obvious on the market right now and the scene is becoming greater. As for commercialization, we went to the US to learn from the biggest products there. Their statistics look great and they are making a great deal of money. Their pay ration is like 20 times higher than that of Momo, meaning they have great potential in future profits. In 2015, Blued will not do commercialization. Growth before profits. Instead, we will focus on attracting more users and build a larger user base. And we will continue to work on the user experience of Blued. If we could acquire a great number of users then making profits is not difficult at all in the future. Also I am confident since many upstream and downstream brands and industries want to cooperate with us now. They really think 70 million gay people’s consuming ability is something hard to come by. It's estimated that gay people’s consuming ability is 4 times higher than that of straight people. We really think this profit model is going to work out well.

[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @TMTpost, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at ECHO), working for TMTpost.

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