Tim interviews Jacky Wang, COO of SHAREit, a platform that provides global users with high-quality digital content simply and quickly. Its basic file transferring function is over 200x faster than Bluetooth and enables sharing of files, photos, videos and music of any format. SHAREit has served emerging markets since 2015 and now has 1.8 billion installs and 600 million MAUs. Jacky previously worked at Google, Zynga, and Pinterest, before moving back to China to lead SHAREit. Jacky shares how SHAREit stumbled into the emerging market opportunity, deeply understanding and then serving core user needs, riding viral growth to capture a huge user base, and future monetization methods.
Edited by Tim Chen
Link to SoundCloud (here), also available via Apple Podcasts, Google Play, etc.
[Editor's note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are Jacky’s own and do not reflect the views of SHAREit; Tim Chen is Head of International Product at Mobike and Partner at TheHarbingerChina]
Welcome to the Harbinger! Let’s start off with your background, what were you working on before SHAREit and how did you come to find this opportunity?
Jacky: I was born in China and I got my degree here. After I graduated I started working for Google China. I worked there for four years and then they generously offered me to transfer to the US to join Google headquarters. That was in 2010. Interestingly at that time I also got an offer from a friend, Andy Tian, maybe you’ve met him in previous episodes. One day he was asking me: “hey Jacky I have great news to tell you.” I said: “yea, I have great news to tell you too.” He said, “you know what, I started a company called XPD, it was acquired by Zynga and is now Zynga headquarters in China. Do you want to join me?” I said “by the way, I just got an offer to join Google headquarters.” At that time he said “hey, why not join Zynga US so we can work together?” So I was very fortunate to meet their Chief People Officer and CTO in Beijing because they were here for the XPD opportunity. I met them and I got an offer. And then I decided, moving from Beijing to the US, San Francisco specifically, is a big change, so why not make a bigger one? So I made my decision to join Zynga and move to the US. Then I stayed in the US for 8 years. I was at Zynga and then moved to Pinterest in its early days. When I joined Pinterest it was 50 to 100 people. I was very fortunate to witness the rapid growth of the company from 50 to 100 people to 2000 to 4000 people. That was a very important experience for me. So I stayed at Pinterest for 5 years until 2018. At that time I decided to move back to Beijing to join SHAREit.
That’s quite a trip, moving from China to the US, getting your experience at Google and then moving throughout Silicon Valley. When you came back to SHAREit in China, how did you find this opportunity and what attracted you to it?
Jacky: When I was in the US I was always thinking someday I will move back to China and build up my business. I have seen a lot of successful stories in China and I have observed a lot of my friends, my old Googler friends in China, who built up successful businesses. But more importantly, they are those entrepreneurs who come up with a brand new idea from scratch, find product-market fit and benefit locals. So I always thought someday I want to do the same thing. As you may know, being an entrepreneur, you have to understand the local culture. Local culture is key to opening the market. That reminds me of my early days in the US. Even though I can speak okay English, having worked in Google China for four years, when I went to the US, I found it was very hard to put myself into the culture or conversation. The funny thing was I could totally understand 70% of the words people use but it was really tough for me to get the meaning. It’s not about slang but expressions and how people describe things. And even after 8 years I think I can do a very good job in the working environment, meaning I can talk to people, express myself, lead a team, push an initiative into a successful business. That’s what I have done. But on the other hand, I still felt in the day to day life – I have lots of American friends, I join their parties, we work together – there was something missing; there was something I couldn’t get into on the deep end.
Product and Market Overview
That is similar to what Zoujia from OYO JiuDian mentioned as well. He grew up in Beijing but felt something was missing culturally. So SHAREit is a local product and has over 1.8 billion users worldwide. So, what is SHAREit and why is it so popular among your users?
Jacky: So SHAREit to explain in one sentence, is AirDrop on Android. We all know that Android is a very fragmented market. I found something very unique in that it is quite affordable for people to buy smartphones. They can buy the latest Samsung or Xiaomi phones; however the internet cost is very high. Or on the other hand, they are in a very limited network environment. This limitation could be that the data plan pricing is very high or the infrastructure signal is not very stable. So smartphones to them become a luxury toy if there’s no internet connection. We all remember in the early days when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone – that was revolutionary for the market. Prior to that we had Newton or Palm, the PDAs – they were ok but not that popular or successful. Then iPhone completely changed the situation because it had (internet) connection – not just a tool to write things with but something you can receive as well and communicate with the world. Once we get to emerging markets this whole situation changes. It’s very hard to access networks so smartphones become a luxury toy. So users need a way to get content – this is where we come in. SHAREit is like AirDrop on Android. Between friends, even if we don’t have internet connection, I can use WiFi or WiFi hotspot to connect to your phone and have you share whatever on your phone with me. That can be applications, documents, movies, music, anything. So to some extent we are the gate or the entrance that this generation of internet users use to access the digital world.
(SHAREit’s Android version pictured. SHAREit works as a peertopeer exchange and connects devices through the WiFi radio to send and receive files. It does not need a WiFi network or mobile data plan. File transfer is up to 200x speed of Bluetooth at 20mb/s+ and files are saved directly onto the device, not in the cloud. Devices with SHAREit installed "see" one another and are discoverable within a range of about 100 feet. SHAREit has expanded into including video, movies, games and other content features.)
Before we dive into the product, how did you come to focus on the Indian market? One year ago, in the Google Play store in India, only 18 of the top 100 applications came from China, of which only the top ten were only two. This number has now doubled. Several Chinese App companies have become the top ten in India, including Tik Tok, Vigo Video, NewsDog, Club Factory, Shein, UC Browser, and SHAREit. Why does SHAREit focus on the Indian market over China?
Jacky: Honestly it was by accident. When we looked at our DAUs one day we saw that we had huge penetration in our emerging markets – India, Egypt, Indonesia, and Africa. We then started to question ourselves – why? This is a very fortunate accident but as an entrepreneur we wanted to dig deeper. That was around the time our CEO Michael visited India and Indonesia and spoke with locals. We found out that they had very limited connections. This is not a very common case in the US or China because we had all experienced the first generation of internet, which is wired. I would say over 90% of our daily time we have WiFi connection availability. If we’re at home, work or even at a cafe – we often ask for the WiFi password. Just imagine if you turn off your WiFi connection for a week, your behavior will be completely changed. You’ll realize you need a tool, a utility, to pass large files between each other.
Source: App Annie
Problem Opportunity and Growth
When you put it that way it’s very clear how it impacts the lives of ordinary users. It’s like back in the States in the 90s when you wanted to share files you would copy it onto a physical CD and then share it with friends. It was very inefficient. I assume that was how users were behaving before SHAREit. How did this problem come to exist in India and how big do you think this problem is?
Jacky: So when we started to tackle the Indian market we saw it was a huge problem. When the Indian GDP rose rapidly, smartphones became more affordable for normal people. So for the first time in their life they could access the internet with a smart tool that they can access for the first time, on a screen – which is second to screen experience after TVs. They don’t have laptops or TVs so suddenly the first question in their mind is “what is this, how can I use this, and what content can I get from the internet?” That was when we began developing our user base. Since then we have grown very rapidly because we have a viral effect. Let’s say we have four people sitting together, three of them have installed SHAREit. One of them has a latest hot content and wants to share with friends. As the one (user) without SHAREit installed, what would I do? Would I be able to successfully convince the other three to install another file sharing application? No, very naturally, I will be the one to install SHAREit. By the way this viral effect is very rare in the application market. So we are very fortunate to catch this opportunity and very quickly grow our user base. Right now we have 1.8 billion installs.
Zynga was the master of virality on Facebook. Borrowing a playbook from them, even if it was one individual who had the latest content and his three friends who didn’t, I’m willing to bet the three friends will download SHAREit to get the content. So therefore you must have a high K virality factor. So for the Indian market how do you think about user types? They’re likely from lower tier cities who don’t have access to consistent WiFi or data is too expensive. How do you think about cohorting your types of users and breakdown across usage such as audio, video and files?
Jacky: It’s very common in the US and China to categorize people based on their income level. But in India, prior to this level, there’s another barrier. It’s language. Everyone’s perception of India is they speak English and Hindi but in actuality it is a very fragmented country. They have seven major languages: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, Punjabi, and these are different languages. The differences could be as large as the difference between English and German – they use different characters and grammar. The first thing is to find cohorts within the same language. Then number two we start looking into user base such as people who are farmers, who live in rural areas, who do business in urban areas, etc. The need to connect is a common request. It’s like asking – hey, do you watch TV? I would say penetration is very high.
When you think about India not as a country but an aggregate of multiple countries given there are so many different languages, I heard in a previous talk given by your colleague Jason Wang that many phones’ default language is English but in a lot of these areas people don’t understand English well enough to read the settings on their phones. How do you think about localizing at that level?
Jacky: That’s very important. There are lots of misunderstandings. Any entrepreneur ambitious about India should understand this before entering the market. Most Indian people understand very simple English basic words such as “enter, exit, click here, apply,” or things like that. They understand some English words but if we ask normal people to read and English article that will be very hard. So for the phones they understand what the buttons mean, but if they need to read help instructions that will be very hard.
That’s a very clear difference you strike, especially when Chinese entrepreneurs think about chuhai (going overseas). In the past five years we’ve seen many Chinese companies grow rapidly in China. In the past year or so we’ve seen lots of Chinese companies go overseas to Southeast Asia and India. But most of their tactics is to copy their app in China and localize overseas. But with SHAREit, the story really began overseas emerging markets. Given this approach, instead of just copying what worked in China, how does this impact your thinking when you’re building a product from scratch?
Jacky: I would say copy from China or copy from Silicon Valley is a very good baby step to get into a market. But once you do I would say you need to go to market and talk to locals. That’s super important. I still remember when I first got this opportunity, as COO of SHAREit, I took my first trip to India in my second week. From an Indian perspective, it’s very common for leadership to come visit a remote office and their job is to get a room and invite users to talk to leadership. So I spent half a day in this environment and then I decided to move outside and really talk to our users. That was in Bangalore. So we hired a local guide and we drove to a small town to truly understand user scenarios. One thing we found was many users installed SHAREit via sales people at cell phone shops because the common scenario is when you buy a phone in a shop, the sales person will say “if you just buy a phone there is no content on it and it is very hard to get internet. So let me give you a valueadd service.” So they will install SHAREit on their phone along with other essential apps to help the users start their internet trip. I think my visit also changed or shaped the culture in our SHAREit India office as well because our colleagues in the India office, once they saw leadership from headquarters drive to their users and talk to them in a humble and patient way, they start to understand the internet industry. Because in a lot of traditional industries leadership just sits in a room and looks at surveys. But the internet industry it’s about how leadership, how people should be the advocate and evangelist to go to market, talk to users and understand users. Leadership should not be an exception. And this was something we helped shape in our Indian team’s culture.
So taking a step back, in Western markets WiFi is ubiquitous and telecom infrastructure is strong, and thus data is inexpensive. This ushered in a wave of Spotify music streaming and Netflix video streaming. Over time, eventually India will get there via deployment of 5G or stronger telecom structure. But that could be 5, 10 years or longer. How do you think about this timeline impact SHAREit because your tool is used offline, and how does this impact your future product offerings?
Jacky: There are two aspects. The first one is at the very beginning we view SHAREit as a purely filetransfer tool and utility. But on the other hand we started to realize what people really need is content. They don’t really care about where they get it but they want it. That’s their ultimate requirement. So therefore we see India’s infrastructure developing. 4G network was deployed in 2017. So we start to see that our users start to have the ability to access the internet smoothly. We then started to offer local content, it’s not English videos with local language dubbing but purely local language programs to the local market. And we started to grow our online video streaming business in India and we’ve seen huge user growth since then. So the key point for the first aspect is to focus on the user need instead of looking at user behavior.
The second aspect is I also noticed that when people describe the market, people tend to describe the market as a flat market – as technology grows, we should see people around the world enjoy the same type of products. Because when people talk about 4G they say after 510 years everyone will have 4G and good connection. But one thing they may miss is that this world is unbalanced: once the emerging markets have 4G, China, US and Europe may already have 5G. At that time, the companies in China or US will always try to offer the best product to the market with the best connection. One example is, recently I watched a video about 5G, I was astonished. It was super fast. It’s about 10x the speed of current 4G connection. So if we look forward 3 to 5 years, when 5G is common, 5G will be commoditized throughout US and or China. We can imagine several things can happen: the term or notion of application could be eliminated, because everything could be settled in the cloud. I don’t need to download a game anymore, I can just subscribe to it via the cloud and play it right away. I don’t need to download a 1GB package onto my phone to use it. Things like this will happen quickly and broadly. So we can totally imagine at that time, internet giant companies will focus their products onto those experiences. But at that time, the emerging markets will have 4G. So we always want to serve the same group of people but always try to bring the best services to them whereas the internet giants may not have the people or resources to do so.
User Behavior and Monetization
When you put it in that perspective, it feels like on the one hand SHAREit started off as a simple tool, and given how user behaviors and needs have changed, it evolved into discovering local content. Or in other terms, moving from a lower time per session to a longer time per session usage app. Over time, for your product, are you thinking about it as a content, tool, or ecosystem? Or is it all dependent on your users’ behaviors and needs?
Jacky: I would say it is a content-driven ecosystem. We took quite a bit of time to think about the core of the internet. What is the internet? Why is it so important to people? We believe that the free distribution of content is the key of the internet. So, therefore we want to focus our business on content. Secondly, we don’t want to be a content producing company. So we want to cultivate an ecosystem on which the producers/suppliers and audience/consumers can match and we are the platform that makes this bridging happen. And also we can monetize.
And when you think about the user behavior, we talked earlier about how when you acquire users there is a virality effect, can you share how you think about user retention as your product offerings expand?
Jacky: First of all that’s (editor’s note: sharing files) a basic user need, so our retention is always really high. That’s why we have half a billion MAUs. that’s much higher than many well known internet companies. Before we talk about growth, I also want to talk about a missing piece when people talk about the internet. In China, the internet population has been growing so rapidly in the past couple of years and the internet market grew with this internet population. But in the past few years we said this whole trend is slowing down; the opportunities in the Chinese market are decreasing. But then we saw PinDuoDuo which was publicly listed several months ago, and KuaiShou, and QuTouTiao. They proved that even in China there is a huge internet population that hasn’t been served very well before. Even though in China we know Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Meituan are big players in the market. But even then, there’s still a huge market in China that internet services can grow. They proved that the market is so large it can support companies to IPO. So if we apply this to the global market we’ll see the same thing. US, China, Europe, and developing countries all have developed internet markets. So people may think when they want to do an internet business they want to do it there. But we proved that half a billion users in emerging markets also need caring and also need internet products. So emerging markets is the way to go.
Source: App Annie
Speaking of emerging markets I want to learn more about retention. We know Facebook back in the day found out if a new user makes 7 connections with friends he or she is likely to stay on as a long term user of Facebook. Given that SHAREit is so ubiquitous and is such a strong tool with stickiness, are there any magic numbers or use cases where if a user receives one file from a friend he or she becomes a long term user?
Jacky: We noticed that as long as a user receives a file transfer successfully, this user will become a long term user. One file.
So that barrier is very low – one file and you’re hooked. That’s pretty incredible. Taking a step back, you mentioned SHAREit has about half a billion MAUs. And when you think about comparing MAUs across regions, we can’t compare them apples to apples – 1 million MAUs in the US can’t be compared directly to 1 million in China, nor 1 million in India. With so many MAUs, one has to believe your early stage monetization method is adsdriven. But over time as your users’ ARPU increase, are you thinking of other types of revenue generating methods?
Jacky: So for now, all monetization is done on ads. We are developing our monetization from purely on Google, Admob, Facebook, Twitter, Mopub, to a broader approach such as partnerships with local agencies – Rightgroup, Dentsu, InMobi. These are all very big local agencies in India and we’ve built a very close relationship with them. We’ve started to develop direct monetization with these agencies. Beyond that, one thing, this is a very early thought in my mind, this is a very experimental initiative, I’m also thinking about an incentive network. Because in the traditional ads market, the advertisers and marketers spend money to pay the infrastructure runners or internet service owners so they can put as onto their application. But the user doesn’t get anything. The user, who ought to be the final audience and ought to be the person who receives the benefit doesn’t get anything. So therefore we start to think about why not encourage advertisers and marketers to funnel money to their users and audience? And as a service runner who offers this infrastructure we can take a cut as well. So basically we can change the way how advertisers and marketers can spend money. It can be a large market but I can also see there are lots of details to be figured out. And my audience, if you have any bright ideas, please send them to me and we can talk!
So let’s dive into the tech side. SHAREit as you mentioned is the AirDrop on Android. And on a more geeky level, it’s via the phone’s WiFi radio that enables a cheap way for users to share. But as a user who uses SHAREit in India, I likely don’t understand how it works. It just uses zero mobile data and is completely free. Can you tell us more about this technology and what differentiates you from similar solutions in India?
Jacky: Sure, so in the early days a lot of people used Bluetooth to transfer files. It’s easier to get, it’s easy to transfer. But the huge drawback is it’s slow. Therefore we are early adopters of WiFi direct; we are early pioneers of WiFi hotspot. So we use WiFi direct connection to build up this file transmitting channel and transmit files. I think this is a very important first step. By the way a lot of entrepreneurs believe “if I have a magic technology i can build a business.” But that’s not reality. The reality is technology is a must. We have to have this technology otherwise this product wouldn’t be adopted by anybody. There’s a lot of hard work and heavy lifting. There are hundreds of models in the market for those smartphones and each smartphone could have wacky points we need to polish. So we built up the engineering team and bought different models of the phones and built adaption for all of the phones so no matter what model you are using you can always get a seamless, frictionless experience.
So the alternatives you mentioned are one, Bluetooth, and two, wait until the infrastructure gets better. Are there other direct competitors who do something similar to WiFi radio and how do you differentiate from them and compete on users?
Jacky: So there are two stages. The first stage is the early stage. In the early stage our competition is mainly based on the product offering basically who offers the smoothest, frictionless, simplest experience to the user wins the user. So that was our strategy in 2016 and 2017 in emerging markets and we won. We got a huge number of users and they loved our product.
So the second stage we won by scale. As I mentioned, this product has a viral effect. If we already got three people in this four people group using this product, the fourth one will use this product as well. At that level it is very hard for a newcomer, a new competitor, to stand in this market. One example is Google Files Go. Google Files Go is the Google product built by Google – by the way, I used to work at Google so I pay huge respects to Google, but when Google Files Go came to market, I knew they spent a lot of marketing resources on the product. But because of this viral effect, people were already using SHAREit. People will be hesitant to try a new product to test something they’re already familiar with. At the beginning we thought this was a huge threat to our business but then we realized this was not the case. We were still widely beloved by our users. After, we noticed that Google was also very interested in the emerging markets to serve users well. So we began to develop a very deep collaboration with Google. We are Google’s first partner for their P2P file sharing API worldwide. And Google Files Go was the second partner for Google itself! We began to develop a full collaboration with Google across Play, AdMob and AdSense in different aspects.
One thing interesting about this Google partnership is if you look into the Android market you will see three things: the first and bottom layer is the operating system, Android. The second layer is the application ecosystem. The third one at the top, if you see it as a pyramid, is monetization. We then noticed in emerging markets because the networks are limited, in the app ecosystem, there is a gap between those who have good internet connections and those with limited internet connections. People who live with limited internet connections also deserve good experiences via Google Play. Therefore we began working with Google to grow this app ecosystem to reach down from strong internet connectivity to limited internet connectivity. And we also work with AdSense on monetization for this as well. So a lot of the development happened after we realized Google had an NBU (next billion users) initiative, to grow to better coverage and serve emerging market users. We then started to develop an even deeper collaboration. So back to your question, competition is very important in the market but if we look deeper, many times it is also about collaboration.
When you talk about collaboration you mentioned this is a very unique market where when you factor in your virality it feels like a winner-take-all market. And if we think about the tech stack, you mentioned at the bottom you mentioned there is the operating system. I would argue obviously one step below there is the OEM hardware players. And Since they are at the bottom of the stack, what’s stopping a player like Xiaomi from creating their own SHAREit copycat app and preinstalling it on their phones? Is your defense the fact you have that brand and trust built over time?
Jacky: The reality is Xiaomi did. Xiaomi built a product called MiDrop. I used to work with KaiFu Lee and one thing he mentioned is a product’s largest advantage could also be its largest disadvantage. Because MiDrop had such a large branding of XiaoMi, would Oppo or Vivo install it? No. So, MiDrop can help users transfer files very fluidly between Xiaomi phones. But what if my friend is using Oppo, what if my friend is using Vivo? MiDrop may not work. So why not just use SHAREit which is a neutral, third party app?
Organization and Partnerships
So we’re sitting here in your Beijing office. You’re located in China yet your operations are in India. How did you set it up this way and how do you balance and manage the tradeoff between organization efficiency and localization? Do you have plans to build offices in India?
Jacky: Oh yea actually we did. So we have four offices worldwide. We have offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi and Bangalore. Localization is uber important. So we have been lucky when we got into the Indian market. From day zero we believed we need to establish a local market if we want to win here. Just flying to India once a month or a quarter wouldn’t help us. Since then we began looking to build a local team. Luckily we met Karam. He has a very interesting background. He went to McKinsey and became their junior partner in a very short amount of time. He went to the Southern part of India and built a company called FastFilm to serve very local people. By the way in India, this boundary between ranks is still very large. But for him, a young person who has a very good educational background and worked at great companies abroad, to move back to serve local people in Southern India as an entrepreneur, I think this describes some very important characteristics of entrepreneurship for him. We spoke with him, he was very sharp, and we acquired his company and designated him to be CEO of SHAREit India office. Since then we started to grow the business there. We have about almost 100 employees in India and almost about 500 vendors in India at this time. In Beijing and Shanghai we have more than 300 people. So as you can tell we’ve put a big commitment into the Iocal market through investment and growing the local team.
Lenovo invested in SHAREit back in 2015. As you further expand in India and other emerging markets, what type of investor or strategic partner would be helpful for you and how do you think about partnerships?
Jacky: Talking about investments, I would say, for many entrepreneurs, the most important thing is not the money, but for the investor understand your vision. I think even for VCs, not just strategic partners, that is the most important thing. That’s why when we talked to Lenovo and our investors, that’s the one thing we care about. And because investment is not a one time thing, investors will accompany your growth along the way. So their understanding of your company, your vision, your belief, is uber important in fundraising discussions. So i think that’s the most important criteria when we choose our investors. And for our partners it’s synergies. So we work with Viacom, who is the largest content business in India. We also partnered with Hotstar and Airtel – those very large, local companies. We help them do content distribution and grow their internet business using our expertise we acquired from the US and Chinese markets. Synergies are very important and we’ve seen very fruitful results.
Can you disclose whether you are fundraising or considering fundraising?
Jacky: So we are a little bit laid back. I think a lot of companies fundraise because they need the money to scale their business. One very big reason is to acquire users. But as I said, fortunately, we acquire our users for free. We use our product to grow our user base. So we haven’t done any paid user acquisition in the past few years. So that saved a lot of money for us and guaranteed future growth. That being said we’re still keeping our eyes open to work with strategic partners to grow synergies between products, user base, and use scenarios.
Last question – you’ve shared a lot of insights with us today. What is one thing you learned about your market in India or via SHAREit that you think others are overlooking?
Jacky: That’s a very interesting question. May I say two things? I think US or American entrepreneurs are quite different from Chinese entrepreneurs on this question. Let’s say for Chinese entrepreneurs, China is a very big country with a very integrated market. Which means once your product is successful, you can quite easily grow to different users in different provinces, different states, and different cities. And also a lot of Chinese people have lived in China for a long time and so they’ve only experienced one culture in their life. I would say the most important thing for Chinese entrepreneurs is to embrace diversity. I think that’s the most important thing because the emerging market there are tens to thousands of cities with different cultures and languages. So Chinese entrepreneurs just have to be ok with diversity. That’s very important. For American entrepreneurs I would say respect your user. They may live a different life than you; they may spend less money than you; they may spend more time supporting their family. Even though the US is a very diverse society and people speak many different languages, people all live quite happy and easy lives compared to the emerging markets. So we must understand our users before we design a product for them.
That’s a great insight. Thank you so much Jacky!
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