Shanghai’s Dark-Horse Tech Unicorn Shines on World Stage

LinkSure Network Emerges as Top 4 Internet Company

Three of the world’s Top 4 Internet companies by user base are from China.

According to the 2017 Retrospective Report by App Annie, a mobile app market data and insights company, the Top 10 apps with the most monthly active users (MAU) worldwide are Facebook, WhatsApp Messenger, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, QQ, Instagram, Taobao, Alipay, WiFi Master Key and Tencent Video. But these apps are developed by just four Internet companies: Facebook, Tencent, Alibaba and LinkSure Network.

Only Facebook is not based in China.

Unlike internationally renowned Chinese Internet giants such as Tencent and Alibaba, LinkSure Network is a young internet start-up with a short history of less than five years. While the company may not be a household name, its flagship product WiFi Master Key is often among the Top 10 most downloaded apps, even claiming the top spot in regional markets.

SEE ALSO: Forbes: WiFi Master Key, the Only Non-BAT Affiliated App Among China’s Top 10 Apps

It is also worth noting that LinkSure Network was founded in Shanghai, a city many doubted could become a tech hub. Chen Danian (陈大年), CEO and founder of LinkSure Network and former co-founder of Shanda Group, was among the first batch of techpreneurs who benefited from the Internet boom at the turn of the millennium.

Shanda Group was the first Chinese online gaming company listed in the US, and it secured the largest US IPO for a Chinese Internet company at that time. In 2004, when Chen Danian rang the bell on NASDAQ Exchange for the listing of Shanda Group, the Big Three Chinese Internet giants — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) – were still young start-ups. It was only after 2013 that they came to dominance, and that Internet companies in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou started to attract attention.

In the mid-2000s, Shanghai had few Internet companies of any notability. With the rise of LinkSure Network, Shanghai has become home to an Internet company with an active user base comparable to Facebook and WeChat.

How did the low-profile WiFi Master Key manage to acquire billions of users in such a short time?

Wifi Master Key of LinkSure
Wifi Master Key by

Empathy Begets Explosive Growth

The prototype that would become WiFi Master Key began at Shanda Innovations, a tech incubator of Shanda Group. Chen, who served as the head of Shanda Innovations, believed that free Internet access would be the entry point into the mobile Internet era. Chen, whose destiny was changed by the Internet, had deep empathy for those who couldn’t afford high Internet fees.

WiFi Master Key began as a project to help users get free Internet access by connecting to reliable WiFi hotspots. During the first two years, without any financing and marketing, it attracted some 500 million users. According to statistics released by LinkSure Network, by September 2016, the number of WiFi Master Key users had exceeded 900 million, with the number of MAU reaching 520 million.

After obtaining the massive user base, Chen said, “We must resist temptation and stay focused on providing free Internet access.” His insistence stemmed from his empathy for people who were being left behind by the digital age.

In his 2015 New Year open letter, Chen told employees that, “Almost every failure after success comes from one’s incorrect self-reevaluation. Success brings the idea of ‘I am a star,’ which leads one to fear all sorts of competitions and make haphazard decisions; Success brings the illusion of ‘I am a genius,’ which leads one to rely on empiricism instead of proven methods. The most frightening part is, success brings the illusion of omnipotence, which leads one to enter into various completely unfamiliar domains rapidly.”

At the time, the market value of WiFi Master Key was already more than $1 billion. However, unlike other mobile Internet companies, it did not raise its entry barrier as a competitive advantage. Instead, WiFi Master Key remained focused on refining its single core function.

The focused strategy of WiFi Master Key helped double its user base in two years. WiFi Master Key is still able to maintain its user growth with millions of new users signing up on a daily basis despite the decreasing growth margins of the mobile Internet industry.
Interestingly, while WiFi Master Key started out with the intention of lessening the Internet costs for average users and making the Internet a more inclusive resource, it eventually benefited the whole digital economy.

Surveys have shown that 20 percent of all WiFi Master Key users are using the Internet for the first time, and the average Internet usage time of WiFi Master Key users is 1.7 times longer than non-users. The increase in online browsing time is also spent on other apps, such as news, video and live streaming providers, which has contributed to an increase for the whole industry.

Empowering People with Free Access

WiFi Master Key has shown a strong capability to captivate mobile Internet users, and this is just a beginning.

According to the 41st Statistical Report on Internet Development in China published by CNNIC, as of December 2017, the number of Chinese netizens reached 772 million, with a penetration rate of 55.8 percent, exceeding the global average by 4.1 percent and surpassing Asia’s average level by 9.1 percent.

But that glowing report also means 45 percent of China’s people are without Internet access. The mobile Internet traffic gap is not closing as fast as the industry believes; on the contrary, there is huge market potential in first-tier cities unseen by product managers.

LinkSure Network is grabbing that opportunity.

Since last year, LinkSure Network has expanded its WiFi hotspot resources through investment, collaborations and home-grown networks. Collaborations include partnerships with companies that are building WiFi infrastructure in factories and promoting smart cities.

In remote and underdeveloped areas, LinkSure Network seeks to play its part using the power of charity. Three years ago, LinkSure Network co-launched the Dream Key charity project with Free Lunch For Children, a nonprofit that provides free Internet access and devices for 1,000 primary schools in China’s mountainous areas and helps them to connect with the world. As of May 2018, Dream Key has helped more than 150 schools in China.

Dream Key launched in Hainan Xizai Miao People’s Primary School and has enabled the teachers there to teach using multimedia devices for the first time. A young teacher said the Internet enabled them to search for the teaching materials shared by other teachers online and helped them better prepare for lessons.

The value of Dream Key is not limited to simple online video or calls. More significantly, it opens a door for the children in remote villages to connect with the world like urban residents and enable them to use the Internet as a tool to acquire information and knowledge. According to LinkSure Network, the digital gap still exists in different regions. Even if their efforts only narrow the gap by 1 percent, it would have great significance in changing the lives of the children and granting them more possibilities in the outside world.

Apart from this, LinkSure Network is also making deployments in the aviation industry. Last year, LinkSure Network has completed a strategic investment in airplane WiFi provider Fairlink Century Avionics Technology. At present, Fairlink has provided services including design, certification and modification of aircraft WiFi system for various airlines.

Additionally, LinkSure Network has developed diverse ways to enable convenient Internet access. This year, LinkSure Network partnered with telecommunication operators to launch a customized data card called the mastersim. The card enables users to access 1.5G data anywhere in China for 9 yuan per month. As a bonus, it includes free talktime and recharge rebates.

Shanghai on the Global Stage

While it ranks top in terms of active users, LinkSure Network is facing fiercer and more complex competition. Unlike five years ago, the market for free Internet service is becoming an international battle field.

Top global Internet companies such as Google and Facebook are investing billions of dollars in technology and strategic deployment to make free Internet service more accessible. For example, Project Loon by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, aims to provide high-speed Internet access to residents living in remote areas, with Kenya on board for expanding Internet coverage to its villages. Since 2016, Google has also launched a free Internet project named Google Station, which has acquired 8 million monthly active users in India and Indonesia. Similarly, Facebook is working with local operators in India to offer an affordable Internet service called Express WiFi. It has also attempted to provide Internet coverage in remote regions using drones.

There is no doubt that companies are actively seeking to enter this market.

Relying on technology accumulation and the spirit for continuous improvements, WiFi Master Key does not pale in comparison to global Internet giants when it comes to free Internet services. In August 2015, WiFi Master Key officially started its global operations in more than 200 countries and regions. Since its global launch, it has topped the Google Play Store app list in 49 countries and regions.

In the Southeast Asian market, for instance, WiFi Master Key is able to penetrate into new markets with daily new users of 600,000. According to another list released by App Annie, a top app analytics and market data platform, WiFi Master Key was among the Top 10 most downloaded apps in Vietnam, only following Facebook and some local apps. In Indonesia, the largest market in Southeast Asia, WiFi Master Key frequently tops the list of Google Play Store Apps.

Downloads of WiFi Master Key on the Google Play Store reached 100 million at the beginning of 2017. Other apps with downloads in the “100 million–500 million” range include Uber, eBay, Amazon and WeChat.

An important reason why LinkSure Network was able to make it into the top listing and draw such a large user base around the world is due to the recognition WiFi Master Key has received beyond its home market of China. It also shows that free Internet is in demand worldwide. In this era of globalization, a product with a universal value that has proven successful in China can duplicate its success rapidly in new markets.

LinkSure Network is taking its next step to become a world-class enterprise, growing from a platform into an ecosystem. Since its establishment, LinkSure Network has been working to build a fairer and more connected world.