Twenty years ago, the entrepreneur was a host at a radio station in southern China. He ran a late-night program where listeners could call in and chat about anything as they wished, often riffing on feelings, relationships or other intimate subjects. Those who couldn’t get through the phone line sent text messages that Lai would then read on air. At the time, it was a popular and promising model for radio stations, which divided the revenue earned from messaging fees with network carriers.
Now, Lai manages one of China’s largest podcast companies. Lizhi means “lychee” in Chinese, the aromatic tropical fruit from his hometown in the southern province of Guangdong. He picked up one of the red-shell fruits from a tea table in his office as he began telling me Lizhi’s story.
“I learned from my days working in radio that interaction is the best monetization model in the audio business. For years in China, the main revenue source for radio stations was these text messages,” Lai reminisced, speaking at a relaxed, slow pace that is uncharacteristic in China’s dog-eat-dog entrepreneurial world.
The headquarters itself felt more like a giant, inviting coffee shop than a high-strung workplace of a Nasdaq-listed firm. Tugged away in a low-rise warehouse-turned-office in Guangzhou, the place is dotted with well-tended bonsai and staff sitting on bean bags behind glass meeting rooms.
Lai built the app for podcast production as well as consumption, capturing both the supply and demand sides. As of June, 56 million people used Lizhi monthly. Over 6 million of them were creators, and the cumulative number of podcasts uploaded to the platform hit a new record high of 215 million.