It was around 20 years ago when Baoli Ma hid in his bedroom feeling helpless and lonely for being a gay man in China.
Life has changed dramatically for Ma since then. This week, BlueCity, the gay dating and lifestyle platform he created, has filed for an initial public listing in the U.S.
“To me, herein lies the power of the internet — it empowers us to elevate ourselves, and to bring warmth to others across all corners of the world living in loneliness, helplessness and fear because of their sexual orientation,” wrote Ma, chief executive of the company, in the prospectus.
The company said it aims to raise $50 million from the IPO, while it has not determined its offer price for each American depositary share (ADS). The proceeds from the public offering will go towards investment in new technologies as well as expansion in domestic and international markets, which currently account for about half of its monthly users.
Ma, a former closeted police officer, founded the LGBTQ-focused online forum Danlan.org in 2000. In 2011, he quit his job to launch Blued, the gay dating app under the parent entity BlueCity.
Early on, Blued was widely seen as a copycat of Grindr — a Californian startup that was bought by a Chinese company before it was forced to sever ties over security concerns. Blued has since devised numerous features to distinguish itself. Designed for users to chat and live broadcast, the app is primarily used by homosexual men, although it includes services for the broader LGBTQ population. To that end, it entered into a letter of intent in June for a potential equity investment to acquire a Chinese lesbian dating app.
As of March, Blued boasted 6 million monthly active users and 49 million registered users. It has attracted a loyal following in overseas markets like India, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
The majority of Blued’s revenues come from virtual items sales during live broadcasting, which represented 88.5% of its total revenues of $107 million in 2019. Other monetization streams included advertising and memberships that gave users premium features in the app.
The company began exploring health services for the LGBTQ community in recent years, offering everything from providing HIV consultancy to connecting clients with overseas surrogate mothers.
Some of the business risks BlueCity cited were government policies and negative public sentiment toward the queer community across different regions. In early 2018, the Indonesian government asked the Google Play Store to block Blued alongside dozens of other apps in the same category. It’s also crucial to ensure user safety. In 2019, Blued had to briefly freeze registration after being condemned for failing to enforce age verification, exposing underage users to sexual exploitation.
While China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from the list of mental illnesses in 2001, public discourse on the community remains fraught. Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging service, sparked a big outcry among the queer community and many Chinese citizens when it announced banning content related to homosexuality. The company later reversed the decision.