Note: This article was first published on TechNode China (in Chinese).
On July 17, Luo Min, CEO of Chinese online credit company Qudian, went viral with a Douyin livestream selling “ready-to-eat” packaged dishes. For 15 hours, he remained at the top of Douyin’s e-commerce livestream ranking and managed to attract 95.87 million visitors, sell 9.56 million products, and gain 3.97 million new followers, all in just one day. While that’s quite a coup, the company spent an estimated RMB 200 million ($29.6 million), about 9% of its cash reserve, on the livestream.
Before this blockbuster livestream, Qudian was best known as an online microlender, giving out cash loans and various other loans to users. In April, the company announced it would begin to make “ready-to-eat” dishes, a new trend that has taken off since the outbreak of the pandemic, as people stuck at home are eager to cook quality meals in less time.
While the transition from online lending to packaged food may seem jarring, Qudian has been looking for ways to boost its lackluster stock price since China’s crackdown on micro-online lending in 2017.
At the end of May 2022, Qudian received a delisting warning from the New York Stock Exchange for the second time. Earlier the same month, Qudian had just completed the remediation of the delisting warning issued by the NYSE in February, bringing its stock price back above $1, making the company re-eligible for the NYSE’s continued listing conditions. Since Qudian went public in New York in 2017, institutional shareholders have reduced their holdings and withdrawn one after another. As the founder of the company, Luo Min is responsible for rescuing the company amidst pressure from the capital markets, which was the fundamental reason for the company to bet big on livestream.
The strategy largely worked. Since Luo Min began to test the waters on Douyin’s livestream in mid-June, Qudian’s stock price has risen steadily, maintaining its price just above $1 in the past month. A day after its successful livestream, Qudian stock increased by 40% and closed at $1.67. As the market closed on July 21, Qudian’s market cap was $345 million, growing almost 70% since the beginning of June.
Giving out pickled fish for a penny
The results of Luo’s July 17 livestream were astonishing; the number of viewers from 7:00 a.m. to the following day at 2:00 a.m. was a total of 95.87 million. Luo gained 3.97 million followers on that day alone, while data shows that the 19-hour livestream generated 9.56 million transactions, with cumulative sales of RMB 250 million ($36.9 million). The largest sales driver during the livestream was the company’s spicy boiled fish dish. Priced at RMB 59.9, the dish sold over 1 million units and brought in RMB 75.073 million in sales. In addition, sales of the remaining 9 dish options, such as pickled fish, spicy boiled meat slices, and beer duck, all exceeded RMB 10 million in sales each.
According to Douyin users who watched Luo Min’s livestream, he was quick and direct when offering promotional products to the audience, eliminating unnecessary rounds of pre-sales and waiting time. This reflects the key to the success of Luo Min’s livestream strategy – offering massive deals.
For example, one promotional deal saw the company sell 100,000 units of pickled fish for just RMB 0.01 during the July 17 livestream. If the cost of each unit is RMB 25, these sales accounted for a loss of nearly RMB 2.5 million. However, that wasn’t the highest cost of Qudian’s deal-packed livestream. Reports show that promotion and advertising cost upwards of several hundreds of million yuan. The company also gave away 1,500 iPhone 13s, and paid for celebrities like Jia Nailiang and Fu Shouer to endorse the livestream. In total, it is estimated that Luo Min invested about RMB 200 million in this livestream.
With such a high cash burn by the company as it continues to operate at a loss, it’s hard not to be worried about Qudian. Fortunately, financial reports show that as of the end of the first quarter of 2022, Qudian still had RMB 2.2 billion in cash.
Another major aspect of the success of Qudian’s livestream were Luo Min’s marketing skills. He captured the audience with catchy headlines like, “Join my livestream, I will invite you to eat pickled fish for a penny” and “I’ll give you 25 hours in a day”. He proved to be energetic and high-spirited, wooing the audience with his generosity and charm. The Qudian founder built up his livestream experience over the course of a month, before the company spent big on the promotional livestream on July 17.
Luo Min streamed for the first time on Douyin on June 15, selling a selection of 10 pre-prepared meal packages with prices ranging from RMB 19.9 to RMB 49.9. The turnout was decent, with a total viewership of 20,000 and 170,000 new followers.
In the aftermath of Luo Min’s success, some are worried that Qudian’s high spending will permanently raise the bar for the entire livestream industry, leaving creators who have little to no access to capital without a chance of competing.
However, Qudian may well be a unique case. Unlike other livestreamers who earn commission by selling products from other merchants, Luo Min is drawing attention to his own company’s products, with the ultimate goal of boost the confidence of Qudian’s investors and raising its stock price, rather than competing with other livestreamers. Even if there is competition, it’s limited to the pre-prepared meals market.
For instance, while Qudian has had success livestreaming, it’s not only focused on the online market, it’s also expanding its offline operations. The company announced plans to support 100,000 users to open their own franchise stores and expects to open 10,000 new franchises this year and reach 200,000 stores by 2024.
History of Qudian and Luo Min
Luo Min is no stranger to being ridiculed for his failures in launching new businesses. His entrepreneurial journey is characterized by repeated battles and failures, both before and after Qudian’s IPO.
In 2017, Qudian, an online credit platform established for more than 3 years, went public on the New York Stock Exchange. It raised $900 million and was the largest IPO of a Chinese company that year, setting off a wave of new IPOs in the United States. Before Qudian, Luo Min had tried and failed to launch startups in various internet sectors, such as campus social networks, group buying, online education, automobile group buying, social network sites, and food delivery apps. Only Qudian realized Luo Min’s dream of going to the United States to ring the bell, making him the CEO of a public traded company.
Nevertheless, Qudian’s history of issuing loans to college students who have no stable income has tarnished its brand. Even though Qudian exited the sector before authorities banned the practice in colleges, Qudian has continued to face doubts from investors.
In 2017, when asked if the company was goading young people to borrow money from their families in order to pay back the loans, Luo Min responded by saying that “anything that is overdue and not paid back is bad debt and will be written off, and treated as welfare.” The response was not only greatly criticized for exposing his ignorance regarding his own business model (such as the confusion between overdue loans and bad debts, and the lack of a post-loan collection process), but also attracted criticism from the industry, leading to a class-action lawsuit from American investors. As the value of Qudian’s stock price continued to fall, the company also faced a series of accusations such as pre-IPO financing fraud, excessive reliance on third-party credit evaluation systems, and leaking user data.
At the end of February, Qudian lost its securities fraud case, paying $8.5 million in settlements to several plaintiffs under a U.S. court order. During the four years that the lawsuit went on, all four new businesses that Luo Min created for Qudian have failed. They are the car rental business Dabai Auto, the high-end housekeeping project Weipujia, the luxury e-commerce platform Wanlimu, and the K12 education project Quxue.
As a result of stricter policies within the cash loan industry in China, the profitability of Qudian’s core business continued to decline, going from achieving high net profits to making a loss. In the first quarter of 2020, Qudian posted a loss for the first time, and after a short turnaround, it continued to lose money in the third quarter of 2021. In the first quarter of this year, Qudian had revenue of RMB 220 million and losses of RMB 140 million.
In April, Qudian once again announced a change in strategy, entering the pre-prepared meals industry, and said it may terminate its credit business due to market conditions. Qudian invited Chinese TV star Jia Nailiang to serve as the brand ambassador for its products and the company’s WeChat Mini-Program now offers 14 dishes from three major cuisines: Sichuanese, Hunanese, and Cantonese. Luo Min said the company has developed over 100 products, but are not in a rush to launch them just yet.
Pre-prepared meals is an emerging field in the food industry with a low barrier to entry. The increasing popularity of this market is in line with Luo Min’s entrepreneurial style to act quickly and capitalize on new opportunities.
Although many people criticize “ready-to-eat” meals as seasoning packets and a consumption downgrade, it is undeniable that it has begun to take shape in the pandemic era, and has met the long-term needs of many consumers — it saves time and energy for migrant workers who commute more than two hours to work. These meals are seen as a healthy, affordable option when compared to ordering takeout and reduce human contact, making them fit for pandemic control measures. They also fit the bills for consumers as they navigate an economic downturn and cut back on eating out.
This market is still in the early stages of its development, with the market share of large companies still less than 1%. Most of the market players are small and medium-sized enterprises and this demographic breakdown is exactly what Qudian needs in order to exert a greater influence and capture a larger share.
It is nothing new to see notable Chinese CEOs livestreaming. As early as 2016, Xiaomi’s Lei Jun held a press conference via livestream, attracting millions of viewers. At that time, live broadcasts mainly relied on entertainment content and entrepreneurs regarded livestreams as a marketing gimmick to increase exposure, with few expectations of making any direct income.
However, in early 2020, the pandemic hit the economy hard, especially the service industry. At the time, Ctrip, the leading domestic online travel platform that was supposed to see rising sales during the Spring Festival holiday season, issued a refund of RMB 1.2 billion to its customers. Although it was able to retain its reputation, it also faced enormous financial pressure.
Driven by a sense of crisis, Ctrip CEO Liang Jianzhang took to livestreaming. With the aim of leading the company out of crisis, Liang Jianzhang pivoted from his persona as a scholarly businessman and emerged on Douyin as he portrayed different characters from Chinese culture, including Tang Bohu, Qin Shihuang, Confucius, Guan Gong, and Cao Cao, playing Rock and Roll music, using Kuai Ban, and doing the seaweed dance.
Through weekly livestreams at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights, Liang Jianzhang created an attractive personal IP with his ever-changing style and charming personality. By focusing his marketing tactics around the theme of “Luxury Hotel Experience Pre-Sales”, Liang successfully revived Ctrip and generated RMB 1.4 billion in revenue, selling an average of 8 hotel experience packages per second on his livestream.
Analysts believe that the growing trend of livestreaming CEOs is an attempt by entrepreneurs to test traffic via online channels and a marketing tool to increase the company’s exposure revenue even when a company’s core business is in crisis. However, this is only a short-term strategy, not a long-term solution.
Brand management expert Wu Daiqi said that for livestream platforms, traffic naturally gravitates towards entrepreneurs, celebrities, or influencers who have are already famous. If these people use low prices to attract consumers, it helps to gain even greater exposure. Livestreams propped up by heavy investments will inevitably affect small and medium-sized businesses on the platform, however, in the long run, livestream platforms will ultimately have to determine the effectiveness of a livestream based on conversion rate, reputation, and sales revenue.