Episode 40: Renee Wang of CastBox: on Building America’s Top-Rated Podcast Listening App

In this episode, we interviewed Renee Wang (王小雨), the founder and CEO of CastBox, a global podcast platform often referred to as the “Netflix for podcasting”. It uses natural language processing and machine learning to power unique features like personalized recommendations and in-audio search. According to a report from Sensor tower in April 2019, Castbox is now the biggest 3rd-party pure-play podcast app. 

Before launching CastBox in 2016, Renee worked for Google in China, Japan, and Ireland. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Peking University in psychology and mathematical statistics. While in college, she taught herself coding and became one of the earliest Android developers in China. 

On the show, Renee discussed user acquisition in international markets with a cross-cultural team, integrating Chinese social app features into its global podcasting platform, the landscape of consumer-facing audio apps in China and her strategic decision for not entering the Chinese market. She also shared her journey of landing a job at Google without speaking a word of English, selling her apartment in Beijing to fund her startup and leading a diverse team spread across the US and China.

TRANSCRIPT:

RITA YANG: On the show today, we have Renee Wang, or Wang Xiaoyu in Chinese. She is the Founder and CEO of Castbox and as a self-taught programmer. Castbox is a global podcast platform that is often referred to as the Netflix for podcasting. It uses natural language processing and machine learning to power unique features like personal life recommendations and in audio search. According to a report from Sensor Tower in April 2019, Castbox is now the biggest third-party pure play podcast app. Welcome to the show.

HANS TUNG: Before launching Castbox in 2016, Renee worked for Google in China, Japan and Ireland. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Peking University in Psychology, in Mathematical Statistics. While in college, she taught herself coding, and became one of the earliest Android developers in China. Welcome to the show, Renee.

RENEE: Thank you.

RITA YANG: First of all, can you tell us the story behind your English name, Renee? We heard it has something to do with Google. 

RENEE: Yes, it was a long time ago. At the very beginning even, I began teaching myself how to code. Google was my dream company and a dream offer. I wanted to apply to Google. But, I think, five years ago, I just graduated from Peking University with a Psychology Degree. I did not have any internet genes in my background, in my resume. But, I tried my best to apply to work there, at Google. I prepared for about eight months. Until the eighth month, I continuously applied to Google. It was really funny, because at that time, Google had the following rule. If you apply for one job and you get rejected, you cannot apply again during the next six months, because they feel that you cannot improve that much during half a year. I remember I applied for the Engineer Team, the UI Team, because I did learn a little bit about Photoshop and coding. I did also apply for the Ad Words team as well as the Google Maps team. It was really fun, because at that time, I had already quit my job. I stayed with a friend of mine, who was a computer science student. Every day, I was hiding in the building, because computer science students had friends performing internships, internships in Google. I wanted to ask them to do a referral. I didn’t want only one referral, because I didn’t want my resume to arrive only through one channel. I changed my English name. I changed my email, and I changed my phone number for different resumes and applied for different roles. Because the whole building knows that I’m applying for Google, so they also tried their best to find…

HANS TUNG: The right opportunity for you.

RENEE: Yes, the right approaches. Finally, I got the opportunity. It was not an interview at all. It was kind of like Edison having an event, a saloon. I was using my friend’s master email to apply and tried to join this event. The event was on the seventh floor. When I was in the elevator going up from the first to the seventh floor, I continued to perceive who looked like the kindest person. I tried to befriend him and asked whether there was any role in his team. He said, oh, we do have a role. Finally, after I jumped out of the elevator, I tried to find a common friend between me and that guy, because I didn’t know that guy at that time. I tried to find a common friend.

HANS TUNG: On which app?

RENEE: I just asked.

HANS TUNG: I thought you checked out their WeChat or something.

RENEE: I just asked whether or not we have a conference. Then I went out of the elevator to go to the female restrooms. I called my friend out. You have to apply again. Help me to apply to Google. Edison said that people delivered my resume to that team, because I already know the team during Edison’s online/offline events. He said that you can get an interview. Edison, I think I had six onsite interviews. It all got positive feedback. 

HANS TUNG: No technical questions.

RENEE: No, not at all. It was Edison’s Team. But at the final interview, they felt that I’m too junior, because I applied for a senior role. They felt that my internet background was not strong. I failed again. I felt as if this was the end of the world. Anyway, I was still applying for some other roles. After, I think, one month, Edison’s team called me. They said that the role you applied for previously requires a more senior professional, but there is a junior role open. Do you want to apply again? I said, of course. At that time, I was already getting an offer from Oracle. I was almost under the training process. But, then I quit my job. The HR said, no, you should not quit, because it is only an opportunity, because you have already been rejected by Google. This one has a record.

HANS TUNG: Which name did you use for that?

RENEE: Renee.

HANS TUNG: It is Renee.

RENEE: He said, you are Renee. You have a record proving that you are not suitable. There is a lot of risk even if we gave you another opportunity. I said, I don’t care. That’s why I quit my previous training process on Oracle. Then I prepared all the essays and all the reference letters. After another two weeks, I finally got an offer. The reason I used Renee as my name was that at that resume I delivered to Edison’s Team, I also used Renee.

HANS TUNG: How many English names have you had during the Google process?

RENEE: I think at least ten. But there were all similar to Renee, like Ren. That’s why all my friends know this history, because at that time, I tried to approach all my contacts to try to get any potential opportunity in Google. That’s why when I quit Google about four years ago, when I said I want to do my own start-up, they felt that I am insane. 

HANS TUNG: You worked so hard to get here. What are you doing leaving?

RENEE: Yes, that’s true. Before Google, when I was applying to Google, the most difficult part for me is not only the interview but also my English. Before the application, I could speak zero English, almost zero. That’s why at that time, I bought an interview book. Literally, I repeated every single word in that book. Also, I think I wrote down my experience in Chinese into the A4-paper in 17 pages. Then I asked my friend in the US to translate that into English. When I interviewed for Google, besides the 17 pages and that book, I could speak zero English. It’s true. The funny part of that is, as I mentioned during Edison’s interview, the people who interviewed me said you are great. But your only disadvantage is your English. In my mind I thought, you don’t know my real English level.

HANS TUNG: It’s a lot worse.

RENEE: It’s much worse. That’s why for every resume, it was not me who made the changes. I had to continuously ask my friend to change the resume. Every time I had to change a little bit of those 17 pages, because the role I was asking for was different. At that time, I tried to remember the top values of Google. What is left for Edison? What does Edison mean? Basically, I could remember the definition of the Google Edison webpage. I knew the team members. But they didn’t know that, but I knew that.

RITA YANG: Obviously, you’ve always had this all-in mentality in you. In fact, when you started Castbox, you sold your house in Beijing. I’m just a little bit curious. Was that a difficult decision for you at all? Where does your conviction come from?

RENEE: First, how I got the house. I want to share this for a bit. I began to develop Android since 2008, about eleven years ago. At that time, people always said, there were about 100,000 apps on iOS. At that time, there were only about 100,000 apps on Apple Store. There were only 20,000 apps on Android. My friend said, you should learn Android. There are a lot of opportunities there. That’s why I began to learn coding. At Edison, I developed a lot of apps and a lot of games. There are some apps I developed that are really complicated. I felt like people may like it. But as a result, people didn’t care about the app that I felt might become popular. But, there are some stupid apps. Even when I code, I never do the test, because the apps are too stupid. I didn’t want to try and do the QA. But those games get a lot of users. There is one app we called Bomb Bomb. People just doing nothing, just clicking on the screen. Then all that fruit, if they’re similar to each other, they become a bomb. They disappear. That stupid app was in the top three on Thailand’s market after the launch on Google Play, two weeks after we launched it on Google Play. We got a lot of advertising revenue from that app.

RITA YANG: You built that app yourself.

RENEE: Yes. As I mentioned, it’s a really silly app. I do not recommend you to download it. But the users like it. As I mentioned, it went to the top three and got a lot of organic downloads. At that time, every upload you upgrade the app. It will show up on the top apps, or top new apps. That’s why I continually upgrade. I continually get this app exported to the users. The promotion is free. But the advertisement is real money, a little money from this part. Also, I get a little money from YouTube channels. You cannot find that anymore. At that time, I felt that there’s a lot of engineers asking questions on Stack Overflow. They’re asking, for example, how to use the Android, or how to use the Android studio, and how to integrate AdMob SDK. The answers are all not very good. That’s why I searched all the top questions on Stack Overflow, asking about Android, because it is my only ability concerning coding. I then do a YouTube. Then I tried to answer the questions. Then I copy and paste back the link to the Stack Overflow questions. Also, the most important thing, I noticed that time on YouTube, there were a lot of people searching for Asian girls. But they were not searching for a photo. That’s why I changed the name of my YouTube channel to “Asian girls are teaching Android”. That’s why I got a lot of traffic. But I didn’t show my real picture. But now, you cannot find that anymore, because it’s gotten down by Google. I got a lot of traffic, and people want to learn how to code Android, maybe. That’s why I got a lot of advertisement revenue as well from YouTube, and using the money I got it from those. But also, I got some extra money from the previous savings when I worked for Google. I bought a house before I went to Dublin. Then from Dublin, I moved to Japan. Then in Japan, when I had the idea I wanted to quit my job. I thought I should find some investors. But at that time, I didn’t know anyone.

HANS TUNG: No one, no VC.

RENEE: That’s true because I’d already been out of China for almost two years. I had no connections. I really wanted to create the startup though.  I then made a really quick decision in one minute. How to sell the house? That’s why I found this previous agency who helped me to buy the house and asked it to sell the house again.

HANS TUNG: I see.

RENEE: It was a quick decision. But I got the money later, because there was a loan. I had to follow the process and the decision was really quick. I just feel that even I failed to establish the start-up, I could still find a place to sleep. I could still go back to my friends.

HANS TUNG: At her apartment.

RENEE: Yes, at her apartment. 

RITA YANG: Using her credit card.

RENEE: I can go through that again. 

HANS TUNG: How did you decide that you want to do a podcasting app?

RENEE: At the very beginning, the first app I did was a yoga app. Also, I tried horoscope apps. I made them all happen. At the very beginning, I developed until 1 or 2 am every day because it was only me at that time as a full-time employee. I had some friends for part-time help. But none of them succeed, because all of them failed. I continued to develop. You can see that we tried more than 20 different kinds of directions, not only ideas. I made them happen. I went to the Github to find an open-source to secure the MVPs as fast as possible. For the podcast, I already had the idea. At the end of 2015, I met a friend, who is now still working for Google. He said that internally they had good feedback for this podcast app. iTunes has its own podcast app, and Google, at that time, did not have one. The guy who works for Google Play said that I have told my developers to try this direction, but none of them are ready to take it up. I said, maybe I can do it. That’s why I took his advice at the end of 2015, which was on December 31st because there was a concert.

RITA YANG: New Year’s Eve concert.

RENEE: Then on January 1st, 2nd and 3rd, I made it happen. On the 4th, I put it on Google Play. The way we made it happen was that, first, I went to GitHub to find if there was any open-source commercially, a friendly open source. I found a podcast, which is MIT lessons, which means that it’s commercial friendly. What we did during the first three days was I changed three things. Since that app was developed by a real developer, all its rankings were similar to Linux development, and TED Talk about the tech part. I changed the ranking from this kind of thing to Joe Rogan to target more general users.

HANS TUNG: General public.

RENEE: Yes, I changed it first to Joe Rogan. I changed the second one to The Daily, or something like that. This is one thing I changed and then was changing the ranking. The second thing I changed was adding languages. They only had that one in English. I added about seventy languages.

HANS TUNG: Seventy!

RENEE: That is true. But I used Google Translate to do the translation. This was the second thing I made. The third thing I made was making the UI beautiful and better by changing the logo. During the first three days, I did all that stuff, and then put it on Google Play as a first version. Also, it was very buggy, but I found that people if they already found this app they spent half an hour a day to listen to all the content. Then I said, maybe this is something worth risking. That’s why I spent all the money I got from selling my house to begin promotion from day two i.e. since I noticed that people were spending those thirty minutes on it. I thought, there is a real value in this. There’s a real need. In just the first month, we got $1 million.

HANS TUNG: In the first month?

RENEE: Yes.

HANS TUNG: Just from two key changes: the language and the new logo. That’s it.  

RENEE: That’s true. 

HANS TUNG: The friend who gave you the idea is still at Google.

RENEE: Yes.

HANS TUNG: Did he ever consider joining you?

RENEE: No, he’s happy there. There’s free food. 

HANS TUNG: He’s the most suitable for a multinational job to come up with ideas. You’re much more entrepreneurial, so you started to pursue it.

RENEE: Yes. Even though at the time, there were a lot of other podcast apps. What we were trying to do different at least for the first year was that we tried to run as fast as we could. I remember in the first year, we upgraded the app about three times a week for every version. At that time, we didn’t have PRD, any kind of product road map or document. We only had one A4 page. Every morning, we talked about what it is we want to do and they wrote it down with a pencil on one A4 page in the back and front. If we did not finish, he would not leave – every day. As I mentioned the first version was buggy. It wasn’t that functional. The function is not that satisfactory. I just looked like competitor-apps and got the whole list.

HANS TUNG: Of what features they have.

RENEE: Of all the features and see what they have done within one month. We said this is what we are going to do in one week. As I mentioned, for every week, we have three minimal versions. If you see on the App Annie or some other third party moderators app, you can see every two days, there’s…

HANS TUNG: A new version.

RENEE: A new version. The whole update is at least ten. That’s why in the very first year, we only tried to catch up and tried to see that, if there is something already proven to us by another platform, we try to make sure we have at least the core functions. That’s why in the first year we got the highest rating and we got a lot of “editors-choice” as we are the most user-friendly.

HANS TUNG: Comprehensive.

RENEE: That’s true. There are several extreme examples. One example is that there is one person, a Russian girl. She’s blind. She said I’m using your app, but you do not have the voice-over feature. I cannot know what all your pictures are about. We received her feedback, and within one day, the whole team tried to add the labels to all the single pictures, and then develop an update.

HANS TUNG: Another version.

RENEE: Then we gave it to her, and she was so happy. She shared the app. There’s a kind of community. She shared the app with all of her community. There’s another example. There was one US user. In her mornings, she’s using our app. She gave her feedback. She said I like the app, but there is a really important feature but you guys don’t have it. We received her feedback. It was evening already in China. We believed that this is important and decided to finish it. The engineering team didn’t leave home until we developed that feature, and upgraded the version on Google Play, because Google Play is quicker. You can upgrade after a few hours. Then in the user’s evening, when she’s back from work to her home, she apologized and changed her comment because in Google Play you can edit your previous comment. She changed her comment and said: I didn’t notice that they do offer this feature. I am recalling my comment.  

HANS TUNG: You just changed it very quickly.

RENEE: That’s true. She didn’t see that we didn’t have the feature that morning. All competitors that have been in the industry like Pocket Casts, it’s true, that they are really great. We respect them very much. But after one year, in terms of functionality, total downloads, or ratings on Google Play, we were number one. If you see a lot of third parties, like App Annie or Sensor Tower, are all ranked from in terms of downloads and the number of daily active users. I think we were also number one among all the competitors. But branding-wise, we are still lacking because branding needs actual time. We need at least three, or four, even ten years to build the brand. But user-wise, the data-wise, we did try to be more competitive. This was during the first year. But during the second year, it was getting harder, because we had to be innovative. 

HANS TUNG: That’s right. You were copying. Now you are the leader. You have to come up with new features on your own then. 

RENEE: That’s true. That’s why I think, from a user’s perspective, we were getting slower since the second year. But that’s why we try by all means to be innovative.

HANS TUNG: Do users give you new comments, new feedback, new ideas?

RENEE: That’s true. We have two telegram groups. One is called Castbox Ambassadors. The other one is called Castbox Users. They give us a lot of feedback. We tried to find all this feedback to filter on whether or not, we can make it happen. In the second year, we tried to be innovative. We tried to be more creative. For example, to be honest, we tried a lot of things. In the community, you search for comments. Also, we tried to have loud cast i.e. adding timestamps for every single audio clip as well as episode labels recommendations. We tried all the things. I mean, some of them didn’t work at all. For example, we tried episode label recommendations. We spent a lot of time doing a recommendation based on the episode. For example, we’ve tried to understand whether they are similar episodes talking about the same thing, but data-wise this is not that good. We just try to drop that idea, and we try some new stuff. Also, financially-wise, we tried premium content. We tried everything. We tried to make sure that we have podcasts of many types. If it works, we make sure it continues to improve. If it didn’t work, we just drop it. That’s why during the recent two years, all that we’re trying to do is try to learn whether there’s anything we can do to be different. We can be a little crazier in this industry. For example, the most recent thing we are doing and trying out is called Live Cast. It’s a sort of loud interaction for live videos. But compared to traditional videos, people can do the real in-app call in. People can leave a message. They can even send you a virtual gift. At the very beginning, we didn’t have high expectations, because we had so many failures during the past two years. 

HANS TUNG: This one is the one that we discussed. Live Cast, right?

RENEE: That’s true. But now it’s totally beyond our expectations. If you see inside the app, people say that it is the real thing. People comment that if you can continue to make this happen, you can compete with Netflix within three years, or this is the next version of a real social network. Also, people began to follow each other. People began to send you virtual gifts.

HANS TUNG: When did you launch this feature?

RENEE: About three months ago.

HANS TUNG: Right. You and I talked about this idea about five months ago. You moved so fast. I was shocked. I just had an idea and you moved immediately.

RENEE: Yes. Also, if you see, every day, we have a different version. For example, recently what we just launched for the desktop version, we added audio clips. We did an on-cloud recording, which we all didn’t have at that time. We did that for the desktop version. They can easily set the mean or set block users. It offers greater control. Also, we already have a lot of big names that will appear in Live Cast next month like Gary Vee.

HANS TUNG: Of course. He’s a good guy.

RENEE: They already agreed to come soon. We are preparing to get him onboard. This is something we finally see a lot of social elements, and we see a lot of people beginning to create. It’s a sort of a little lower threshold for people to create content. That’s why we get a lot of feedback. That’s really funny. 

HANS TUNG: Your app definitely is becoming more social because of that.

RENEE: That’s true. The funny part is that we have a team member called Tina. You also met her.

HANS TUNG: I remember.

RENEE: Last time when we went back to the office from GGV, Tina said that she really likes this feature, because it made her want to do something. Tina said that finally, after so many trials, we finally found something that…

HANS TUNG: What a good idea.

RENEE: Yes, I said Tina, I’m sorry. We gave you constantly all the bad experiences. Because innovation is really hard. You never know. That’s why I continued to try to empower the team, and remain always very positive. Whenever we have a new feature, that’s what I say.

HANS TUNG: Your enthusiasm is very impressive. 

RENEE: But the funny part is every time there was a new feature, I said to the team, this is the future.

RITA YANG: That’s somebody making her speech.

RENEE: Finally, Tina said, that you repeat that sentence so many times – every time there is new feature like the comment-thing, the premium-thing, the analytics or the claimer. Anyway, this was a startup. It was really hard. Whenever I go home, I think what I should tell the team tomorrow. It was really hard from cross-cultural aspect across Castbox team members.  

HANS TUNG: Between US and China.

RENEE: That’s true. I totally understand that for our US team members. They kind of get disconnected with the engineering team.

HANS TUNG: Because they are all in China.

RENEE: That’s true. They feel lonely. That’s why I have to empower them using future stories. Back to the topic, talking about the future, I can totally understand that our US team feels frustrated, because there was a lot of generation for our US Team. At the very beginning, I never worked in the US before. As I mentioned, I used to work in Dublin and in Japan, but never in the US. Even today, my English is not good.

HANS TUNG: No, it’s amazing now compared to your Google interview.

 RENEE: Before, I’ve never officially came to the US, before I opened an office here. It was officially my first time I went to the US.

HANS TUNG: You opened the office on your first trip.

RENEE: That’s true. The first team members I have for the US branch were good people, but they are not suitable for…

HANS TUNG: For doing Chinese work.

RENEE: That’s true. It was terrible. A lot of drama at the same time. It’s not their fault. It’s my fault. I don’t know how to find the real users. That’s why I really appreciate Tina as the first team member of the group. She is still there. I owe her a lot. I continue to show her the greater future. At the very beginning, there was a lot of drama. There were a lot of conflicts and a lot of disconnection between China and the US. This was the first group of people. But we didn’t have a lot of connections. We just caught whatever we could catch. But there were many conflicts between the US and China.

HANS TUNG: What was an example of a conflict? The famous, the dramatic.

RENEE: There’s a lot of huge ones. There are too many, so I cannot remember one in particular. There was a really big fight. In the China team, because we are disconnected from the market, we try to make all our decisions based on data. But the US people are not operation-driven. In their decision making, they are trying to understand the market. There was a lot of disagreement on certain decisions. For example, in China, because we believe in data, we did spend a lot of money on user acquisition, since data-wise, ours is the highest, if we calculate the retention, and calculate the annual star rate. But the US people feel organic growth is the most important metric they want to purchase. That’s what they want to pursue. That’s why they said, you guys should not spend any acquisition money. You should spend all the money on paying for the creators to do the shout out. They did prefer this kind of organic growth from word-of-mouth, from branding awareness. But for that part, it’s really hard to marry. Even for the user acquisition part, there are many conflicts. US people feel that you’re doing the Google, Facebook. It feels like stupid money. Why not to collaborate also with influencers? But the Chinese people do not understand this. Influencers are really hard to track especially, for this kind of audio content, which the network effect is not that big. Methodologically, they are different. There are a lot of big discussions. There is also a difference in lifestyle.

For example, we hired a really professional guy. He’s really nice. He’s very professional, very smart. But during the first week he was at the office, he spent several hours talking with our HR regarding why his phone bill should be paid by the company. But the Chinese Team feels that he should just get things done. Stop spending time on discussing, whether or not the company should pay the phone bills. But as the US people said, oh, this is very crucial. This should have been done at the first day, talking about whether or not this belongs to the company or to the…

HANS TUNG: Individual.

RENEE: Yes, to the individual. The Chinese team feels that this is just wasting time. Why are we not spending every single minute developing?

HANS TUNG: Improving the product and getting users.

RENEE: That’s true. But US people believe that these are the rules that we should talk about first before we jump into work. This is a work-style difference. There are other differences regarding our communication style. The China team is a bit shyer. They just keep doing, doing, without too much communication. But the US team members, they always want to engage in a critical discussion or a strategic discussion. Before they do anything, they want to… 

HANS TUNG: Talk about it.

RENEE: That’s true. We spend time talking and talking. But the Chinese team, they’re really quiet. They’re just getting things done. Even if they don’t work, they don’t change. That’s why the US team members wonder why do the Chinese engineers never talk? We didn’t even know that this thing changed. But the Chinese wonder why are we still talking about it? 

HANS TUNG: Do your job.

RENEE: That’s true. I can understand both.

HANS TUNG: Now you can.

RENEE: I’m in between. But it’s really hard to try to balance their mindset or try to balance and face the conflict. Nowadays, we still try to make sure that they are communicating with each other very well. But there are still many conflicts. I don’t think this will get fixed at the end of the day. But now, we are trying to leverage both advantages. That’s why by doing this, we try to save cost, by hiring more engineers or operational team members in China. But we try to be more professional and more local by hiring BD people.

HANS TUNG: Marketing BD people in the US.

RENEE: That’s why nowadays, I feel much better, because they do not cooperate with each other.

HANS TUNG: They don’t talk to each other that much.

RENEE: But still, we try to have some people in between to try to serve as a bridge. But anyway, we do respect both team members.

HANS TUNG: They all have strengths.

RENEE: That’s true.

RITA YANG: Regarding your users, are they mostly based in the US or where are they based?

RENEE: Half of all the users are from the US. Another thirty percent are from some other European countries, including the UK and Germany and Northern European countries.

HANS TUNG: Initially you had 70 languages, and English immediately became the most popular one?

RENEE: That’s true. Because about 70 percent of our users are English speaking users, because Canada, the UK and Australia also speak English.

HANS TUNG: But you also have a Chinese version initially. But it never really took off in China.

RENEE: We have zero Chinese users. If the Chinese want to use our app, first, they have to buy a phone that has Google Play.

HANS TUNG: It’s not on any of the Chinese Android platforms.

RENEE: No, because if the phone didn’t have Google Play service, even if they download the app, they cannot open it. But for Apple Store, you have to have an account outside of China.

HANS TUNG: You could have made a Chinese version and have it be on mobile Xiaomi, on Tencent app stores and so forth. But you chose not to.

RENEE: That’s true, because firstly, we do not have the ICP license, which we have to get if we want to.

HANS TUNG: You can get that. It’s not hard.

RENEE: That’s true. Also, secondly, we have only 70 people in the team. But if you want to do content, then you have to do a lot of reviews, which is out of our organizational capability.

HANS TUNG: Sure, but after you raise money, you can do that too. You made that decision early on. You didn’t want to have an app for China.

RENEE: That’s true, because the two ecosystems are so different to be honest. To be honest, I want to say that the audio consumer-facing product in China is much more cutting edge and advanced compared to…

HANS TUNG: Anything outside of China.

RENEE: That’s true. If you see recently, there are lots of apps banned recently. But if you see that like Zhiya (吱呀), like Bixin (比心), like Yu’er (鱼耳) and Kong’er (空耳), there tons of really good social apps, and are very popular. Monetization is huge.

HANS TUNG: In China?

RENEE: In China. If you’re talking about the non-social apps like podcast streaming apps, I think Himalaya (喜马拉雅) and Lizhi (荔枝) and Qingting (蜻蜓), they all are also doing really good. Also, Lanren Tingshu (懒人听书). They are making a lot of progress. If we’re talking about some other new apps, a new kind of format like Soul, even though they were banned recently, but this kind of audio combined new formats of apps, they are also much more advanced than what is now in the…

HANS TUNG: Have you incorporated any of the Chinese advanced app features into your English. 

RENEE: That’s true. Beyond Castbox, recently we launched a new app called Cuddle. It’s kind of like more social. It’s only targeting the younger generation. There’s a lot of gaming…

HANS TUNG: Different features.

RENEE: That’s true. That’s more a pure application content consuming app. This is an app. We really learned a lot of ideas from those Chinese apps. But we do our own approaches on the localization.

HANS TUNG: The users also give you feedback as well.

RENEE: That’s true. For example, the new app Cuddle, is really amazing. It was a really fast decision. We decided to make it as a separate stand along with live social audio apps as of the beginning of June, June 1st. 

HANS TUNG: June 1st of this year?

RENEE: Yes, this year. It was live on June 15th, within two weeks. Until today, we haven’t promoted the app that much. But we get only several thousand daily active users. But even with these several thousands of active users, people spend hundreds of US dollars per day.

HANS TUNG: Hundreds of US dollars per day per user.

RENEE: Not all the people, but several people, US $200 per day, not all the users but some users.

HANS TUNG: What do they spend money on. 

RENEE: Just the tipping and gifting. Also because they want to jump into the ranking, top ranking of sending gift. All these methodologies are already proven.

HANS TUNG: In China?

RENEE: In China. We just try to see whether or not, it will work in the US. It has been proven that it works. Even with only several thousand active users, we can still see people spend hundreds of US dollars.

HANS TUNG: You haven’t even started promoting it yet.

RENEE: Not yet. It’s organic. Only through word of mouth or some CB users from Castbox. This kind of app is still very new. This feature has not been developed well. If this kind of app is sold in China, people will feel that it is very underdeveloped. 

RENEE: As I mentioned, we developed the app in two weeks. Now when we sell it in the US, people feel, this is amazing.

HANS TUNG: Something new. 

RENEE: I don’t want to say that, but it’s true. Back to your question, why we don’t want to depend on the Chinese market but stay focused on the US market: it’s because of all these features. Consumer-facing products in China are much, much more advanced.

HANS TUNG: Do you think that people in the US think that Google is a great company? And it is, but when you look at the things you get at Google China versus what was happening at Baidu, or Tencent, or Ali, what’s the difference that you see in speed, in the sophistication of work and et cetera?

RENEE: For example, before I quit my job in Google, I said, Google is amazing. They have a lot of innovations and a lot of fundamental infrastructure, technology, skills. But after I quit Google, I began to meet more contacts and communicate with all these Tencent and Ali guys. I feel that they are much more advanced in all kinds of business models of commercialization.

HANS TUNG: In monetization and also in social features, product features.

RENEE: That’s true. It’s much more advanced compared to the US commercial facing apps if we’re talking about B2B business or SAAS business.

HANS TUNG: Of course the US is more advanced. 

RENEE: Much more advanced, but its consumer-facing, as you mentioned, is ByteDance and Tencent. They are all engineers and product managers and even operations people. They are very strong, especially for operations. For example, I think even in the US, when we talk about operations, we think about people who are working for Amazon, packaging staff. Operations-wise they are doing a lot of stuff.

HANS TUNG: Operations already exist inside Google.

RENEE: That’s true. They call doing user-support operations. But in China, the operation is totally…

HANS TUNG: It’s a science.

RENEE: It’s a science. That’s true. But the US people don’t feel that it’s important. When they talk about gross hacking, they are talking about operations, but more tech-wise. Even the word “to hack”. In China, for the whole operation, they really know how to make the online/offline, how to make more money, how to put in the game theory, or some game elements into the application, into the whole ecosystem.

HANS TUNG: For you, how do you do operations from China for US users or European users?

RENEE: This is a really good question. For example, regarding the new app called Cuddle we are now trying to hire people from MoMo (陌陌), from YY. They’re really familiar with the operation methodologies. They have them. But they are not good with English. For every single operation person, we get them with 2 interns, who can speak really good English, almost native English.

HANS TUNG: Interns from where?

RENEE: From Stanford.

HANS TUNG: From Stanford, Berkeley in California, who are Chinese-American.

RENEE: Chinese-American. They work as a very close group. For example, responsible for a Cadoo operation, for example, is one person from MoMo (陌陌). He really knows how to make audio games and social gaming fun. He can create a whole list of how this operation masses and how we can make the app really funny, more attractive. Then I ask his intern to translate, but not only the language, but translate the culture as if this would fail. This would not work. Then we’re using this translation to go to the localhost to say, this is how we can do. That’s why basically in this process we need three people, people who know operations in China, people who know the local culture, and people who engage in real communication with local BD people. It’s a little complicated, because in China, only one person can do what three do.

HANS TUNG: One can do all three jobs. Here, you need three different people to do it. But no one else can do it. That’s your mode.

RENEE: That’s true. At least they can do it. Also – to answer your question about what I think about Tencent or local Chinese companies – what is the most important thing, to be honest, when I first went to the US, is that I felt that all those US people, especially people working at Silicon Valley, are really smart. They know a lot of methodologies. Even today, I feel so. That’s why I said, I should have to be as humble as possible. I should learn from you guys, learn about the MVP theory. The class is taught by a YC. I do think there is a lot of things I observed from you guys. But when I met some local Silicon Valley startup core people, they felt the same. They feel they are good. I feel they are good. They do know about the WeChat Pay. But they only know about WeChat Pay. They didn’t know what is really happening.

HANS TUNG: What’s the real methodology and the philosophy behind it.

RENEE: That’s true. That’s why I think there is a lot of new stuff happening: because all these Chinese startups like entrepreneurs like me, or like big companies. When we came to the US, we try to learn. We try to observe as much as possible. Then the US people first of all, they have not been in China. If they go there, they try to teach.

HANS TUNG: They don’t learn. They are only teaching.

RENEE: That’s true. That’s why I think a lot of new things are happening in China. We can leverage the advantages from both sides.

HANS TUNG: That’s one of the reasons we decided doing this podcast series with Zara in the first place. There are so many things happening in China now which is just not taught or shared on a global basis. Not only, the Silicon Valley people but the people in New York, Toronto, or Sao Paolo, Jakarta, Bangalore, New Delhi, Bogota can all benefit too. I noticed that you’re also producing original content based on our discussions before. How is that going? 

RENEE: I have to say that at the very beginning, we didn’t spend too much stupid money in the content business, because it was not our strength. I have to say that we still continue to develop our original content. IP is will maybe be purchased by bigger movie companies. Maybe, it’s still an early discussion. Also, we try to monetize by creating bonus episodes, or integrate audio ads. But generally speaking, I have to say that I hope that I will not spend too much money on the original content, if I go through that again, if we look back.

HANS TUNG: At least not right now.

RENEE: That’s true. I think there are three reasons. The first reason is that original content is not something that we’re good at, because our strength is our product. It’s our technology. And it’s our operation. It’s not our content or culture. It’s not our…

HANS TUNG: DNA.

RENEE: Yes, DNA. The second reason is that, content business is like a Hollywood business. You can never predict.

HANS TUNG: It’s a hit business.

RENEE: That’s true. We cannot predict. Previously, the content that we spent more money on brought the smallest revenue. The content that spent less money brought more revenue for us. That’s why I feel this is too unpredictable. It is not our focus. The third one is that we are now trained to do more innovation especially after Spotify and Google jumped into the industry. Since, for example, Spotify spent $1 million for his first original show. But we can never use that money. Even if we continuously compete with the original content, which we were doing two years ago, there was only us. But now, there are a lot of industry giants. If we keep doing something that is not competing with them, we can never survive. That’s why we’re trying to create all the utility tools to try to make the threshold of creating content easier.

HANS TUNG: Being social I always thought to be the best way for you to grow. 

RENEE: That’s true. As I mentioned, the third reason is that the competitors’ environment is changing a little bit. But, our original content also has some advantages for us. We didn’t learn by doing. We have a deeper understanding of the industry. Even though we didn’t continuously spend too much money, we still allocated a small budget to continuously find some good content, and try to build better and deeper relationship with those content creators.

HANS TUNG: What is driving you? What is motivating you to work all these hours? 

RENEE: For me, it’s very simple. When I was younger, my biggest driver to do things is to avoid failure. Because when I was younger, I was not that confident. I was always trying to say that I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to make mistakes. But when I’m getting older…

HANS TUNG: Applying a job at Google..

RENEE: After finally, getting my dream offer. Nowadays, I’m doing things, because I want to become a better version of myself. I think it’s a very positive mindset. Because even I met difficulties, I met problems. For me this is an opportunity.

HANS TUNG: To get better.

RENEE: To get better, to overcome the difficulties. When I get some really good data or good results from a product, I will still be very humble. This is only a very small step. If I want to achieve a better version of myself, I need to be standing in a higher place. That’s why I can have a whole picture, the bigger, have a bigger view. For me, this is not the result. This is only a process through which I can be better. Back to the topic, nowadays, the only thing that I really need to continue to work on, is to become a better version of myself. That’s why I feel that during these three and a half years, were much, much, much better than my work in Google. Google is great. But I feel that Google, after the first two years,  repeated the same things. But for a startup, everyday…

HANS TUNG: Something new, full of surprises.

RENEE: Full of surprises.

RITA YANG: All right, thank you, Renee. This was a fascinating conversation. Thanks for being on the show.

RENEE: Thank you.

HANS TUNG: Thanks for listening to this episode of 996.