Apps that use photos and location have long dominated the online dating market in China and the world over. Now startup Soul App is rewriting the playbook, allowing the country’s Generation Z the unique option to find matches based on common interest alone.

The backstory: Shanghai-based Renyimen Technology launched Soul App in late 2016 to provide younger generations with the opportunity to express themselves freely and to form bonds with strangers who share their world views.

  • Consulting veteran Zhang Lu founded the firm in 2015 without any previous experience in internet or tech companies.
  • Renyimen Technology has closed six financing rounds to date, though the firm did not reveal specific figures for five of those.

Unique selling point: While most dating apps let users browse a feed of profile pictures to find matches, Soul App employs a mix of personality and interest tests to sort users. It then uses machine learning to generate pools of members with similar values and interests for users to choose from.

  • Users cannot see any personal information of others, besides their test match score and their public posts.

“A lot of apps that don’t target young users, or even those with a low percentage of young users, have seen their market share decline [in 2019]. Only apps with a user base consisting primarily of young people can grow.”

—Zhang Lu, founder and Chief Executive at Soul App, told Sina Tech 

The investors: Soul App closed a $60 million Series C led by GGV Capital in December 2018.

  • In January 2018, the company raised tens of million dollars in a Series B from DST Global, Genesis Capital, and Morningside Venture Capital.

Present condition: Soul App has close to 10 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of September 2019, according to a QuestMobile report.

  • Soul App’s monetization efforts started later than those of more mainstream platforms like Momo and Tantan.
  • The platform only started selling Soul Tokens in February 2019. They are used to purchase services such as additional voice chat opportunities.
  • However, from September 2019, Soul App accelerated monetization efforts, rolling out features such as premium memberships and raising prices for matching services.

The landscape: China’s total online daters hit as many as 622 million in 2019, according to a report from research firm iiMedia.

  • Momo is the largest player in the field, reporting close to 114.1 million MAUs and RMB 1.11 billion in net income in the third quarter of 2019.
  • Virtual gifting and live-streaming have been the main money makers on these apps.
  • Platforms are known for hosting content that falls within the legal gray area or is downright illegal.
  • Regulators have scrutinized the platforms for sexually explicit or suggestive content since the start of 2019. Momo subsidiary Tantan, for instance, was previously removed from Apple’s App Store and third-party Android stores in April for sexual content.
  • Soul App was also pulled from app marketplaces in June for non-compliant content. It returned two months later.

Prospects: Soul App is likely to grow its Generation Z user base by providing a dating experience that focuses more on shared values and interests rather than appearances alone.

  • However, the app could also lose its unique selling point as users from more mainstream apps join, bringing with them the common practice of asking for photos at the start of any chat.

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail:

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