The summer LinkedIn got pummeled in China


Or how the startup Maimai cracked Chinese professional networking


In the summer of 2017, the Chinese online media was abuzz with one ranking: Maimai, a local startup barely four years old, had beaten US stalwart LinkedIn to become the No. 1 professional networking app in China. 

Maimai’s lead was announced in two separate reports by respected industry research and media firms iResearch and China Internet Weekly, as well as a handful of others.

A few months later, Maimai raised US$75 million in Series C funding and said it was targeting a US$10 billion initial public offering in 2019. It had also, it said, more than 30 million registered users, and broken even at end-2016. LinkedIn, meanwhile, announced it had 36 million users in China, reflecting an eightfold growth since they entered the market in 2014.

So how did Maimai, a startup born in October 2013, manage to turn out such spectacular growth in a short period of time, to even rival the world’s largest professional network in China?

Know thy culture

The Chinese society runs on connections. If you wish to know someone, you’d do so through mutual friends, by inviting everyone out to bond over a good meal and drinks, for example. After the socializing, everyone would add one another on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging and social networking app. That’s how it works here.

Even when changing jobs, people prefer to do it quickly and quietly through referrals rather than applying directly to companies. Even in a fast-growing economy where hiring and employment needs are ever more on the rise, many still resist the idea of posting their professional information publicly, or risk letting others know they are thinking of leaving their current employer.

To allay such concerns, right from the start Maimai created a feature for users to set their profile to “anonymous”, while still retaining access to job search and applications. The app was designed such that based on a user’s job profile, several tags would be given to the user. These tags allow employers to assess the user (and other candidates) – but without knowing their real identities – during the early stages. This feature attracted 30,000 new users to Maimai within a month of launching.

Maimai also leveraged the power of existing Chinese social networking platforms like WeChat and Weibo. When a user registers on Maimai, he authorizes Maimai to automatically access and transfer to the app his contacts and other data from his existing social networks. This proved a quick and cheap way of acquiring user data and new users for Maimai.

As for LinkedIn, while it did partner with WeChat to let users link their LinkedIn account to WeChat, the LinkedIn icon does not show prominently on WeChat. LinkedIn also relies heavily on e-mail to acquire new users; however, e-mail has never been as widely used in China as in the West.

Social makes sticky

Amid Maimai’s many iterations, the most popular has been the “post anonymously” function, recreating the “office gossip” touch in the professional social network. With the tag of a certain company or industry, users can follow postings about that company or industry, and reply anonymously (or not).

Such gossiping power was further enhanced, when Maimai launched a function letting users send anonymous messages, whether between two parties or in a group.

In fact, this was what catapulted Maimai to the spotlight. Many important hirings and departures at Chinese internet companies first got leaked on Maimai – making it a key source of information tracked by many reporters, who would even attribute their stories to Maimai.

Not surprisingly, the anonymous posting function features prominently in the Maimai app – visible the moment you open it. It’s this mix of juicy office and industry gossip and questions from newbies that keep Maimai users – about 10 million monthly – hooked.

Membership fees therefore contribute a large chunk (some 40%) to Maimai’s revenue; another big earner is advertising. As many of Maimai’s users are professionals with ample spending power, it’s also entering the training and recruitment markets.

Rise of China Inc.

Maimai’s CEO, Lin Fan, has another theory on his product’s success.

“The progress of Maimai, the decline of LinkedIn is a sign that Chinese companies are surpassing foreign companies,” he once said in an interview.

Indeed, the attractiveness of foreign firms to jobseekers in China has been declining over the years. In a survey in 2018, college students even voted foreign companies as unattractive to work for.

Hence Lin argued, were foreign firms still as attractive to Chinese jobseekers as they once were, more people would be choosing LinkedIn over Maimai.

As Maimai eyes an IPO possibly overseas, some are betting that the startup also wants to grow its model of professional networking beyond China. Is the love for office gossip a Chinese quirk? Or might it be revealed as actually a more universal trait? That’s a good reason to keep watching Maimai.

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Edited by Bernice Tang

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