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Podcast is social: How China’s Lizhi makes audio interactive

For Marco Lai, the founder of Chinese podcast network Lizhi, radio has always been social.

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.

Marco Lai, founder and CEO of Lizhi (Photo: Lizhi)

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.

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China’s EV startup Xpeng pulls in $500 million Series C+

Xpeng, an electric vehicle startup run by former Alibaba executive He Xiaopeng, said Monday it has raised around $500 million in a Series C+ round to further develop models tailored to China’s tech-savvy middle-class consumers.

The announcement followed its Series C round of $400 million closed last November. A source told TechCrunch that the company’s valuation at the time had exceeded the 25 billion yuan ($3.57 billion) round raised in August 2018.

The new proceeds bring the five-year-old Chinese startup’s to-date fundings announced to $1.7 billion.

Investors in the latest round include Hong Kong-based private equity firm Aspex Management; the storied American tech hedge fund Coatue Management; China’s top private equity fund Hillhouse Capital; and Sequoia Capital China. The other existing big-name backers are Foxconn, Xiaomi, GGV Capital, Morningside Venture Capital, IDG Capital, and Primavera Capital.

Despite the sizable round, Xpeng is headed for a slew of challenges. Electric vehicle sales in China have shrunk in the wake of reduced government subsidies set in motion last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to further dampen demand as the economy weakens.

Xpeng’s Chinese rival Byton, which counts heavyweights backers like Tencent, FAW Group, and Foxconn, is already showing signs of strain as it furloughed about half of its 450 North America-based staff citing coronavirus impact. In June, the company put the brakes on production for internal reorganization.

Xpeng’s other competitors seem to have proven more resilient. In April, Nasdaq-listed Nio secured a $1 billion investment for its Chinese entity, while Li Auto ventured to file for a U.S. public listing in July.

Xpeng claims it has so far been able to withstand coronavirus challenges. In May, the company obtained a production license for its fully-owned car plant in a city near its Guangzhou headquarters, signaling its reduced dependence on manufacturing partner Haima Automobile.

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