How lessons from China internet helped Castbox CEO build a popular global podcasting app

The company has drawn on features popular in Chinese social apps, such as a community aspect that lets users discuss podcast episodes in a comments section.

Photo Credit: Handout via SCMP

When Renee Wang set her sights on working for Google, she quit her job at a startup and spent the next eight months preparing for interviews and submitting multiple resumes in the hopes that it would increase her chances of landing job interviews with the search engine giant.

So when Wang quit after just four years at Google, sold her apartment in Beijing and invested her savings to create podcasting app Castbox, her friends thought she was crazy to give up a job that paid well and had allowed her to live in Japan and Ireland.

“I learned a lot from the people at Google, and I enjoyed it, but after a while I wanted to move out of that comfort zone, to challenge myself in a new life situation,” said 32-year-old Wang, chief executive and co-founder of Castbox, in an interview.

The kind of determination Wang displayed in giving up a well-paying job is perhaps indicative of the go-getter, driven personality that has helped her build Castbox—a podcast platform that is a one-stop-shop for searching, creating and listening to podcasts. Today, Castbox has 28 million users across 175 countries, supporting some 70 languages. In comparison, popular US-based podcast platform player Stitcher has over 12 million downloads.

Wang studied psychology at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, and taught herself programming and coding in university after she realized she had a knack for it while helping her then-boyfriend with a coding assignment. That led to a career in the technology industry—she started a small firm creating Android game apps that brought in advertising revenue, and later set her sights on working for Google.

An avid listener to podcasts and audio content, Wang first became inspired to create Castbox in 2016 when she realized that unlike Apple, there wasn’t yet a dedicated app for Android smartphone users to listen to podcasts despite the growing market for podcasts.

She quit Google and founded Castbox with two others, making it an aggregator for podcasts on the internet, meaning that users could search for their favorite podcasts to listen to with just one app. Later, Castbox expanded into making the app a one-stop-shop for content creators to record, edit and even publish podcasts directly from the Castbox app.

The podcasting industry was already a burgeoning business in 2016, and the growing number of listeners and podcasts in the US market, coupled with the lack of integrated podcast platforms, allowed Castbox to fill a market gap.

The company drew on features popular in Chinese social apps, such as a community aspect that allows users to discuss podcast episodes in a comments section as well as an in-audio search function.

Learning from popular Chinese apps and the kinds of features that Chinese users prefer, as well as the ability to iterate quickly and improve on the app, has been key to Castbox’s success, Wang said.

The community aspect, for example, came about because she realized that in the West every part of the listening journey was still very disparate. For example, users who listened to a new podcast episode and wanted to discuss it often head over to Reddit—a separate website altogether to seek out relevant threads for discussion.

In contrast, Chinese apps tend to integrate the social aspect directly into their platforms, to keep user engagement high and increase the amount of time spent in-app.

But rival podcast apps that are popular in the US lack this community function. This is primarily because consumers in the US are used to being extremely vertical, said Wang.

“If you look at Spotify today, there’s still no such thing as a comments feature, but if you look at NetEase Music or QQ Music there is such a function where people can discuss music,” Wang said. “There’s really a lot we can learn from these Chinese apps.”

Other features drawn from the Chinese internet include a “Livecasting” function—like live-streaming, except for audio—as well as the ability to tip hosts with digital items.

“Americans, for example, are already very used to tipping, so for them, this is a fun way of sending tips,” she said.

Wang’s perseverance and commitment to creating the best podcasting platform she can has helped it raise nearly USD 30 million in funding from investors such as Qiming Venture Partners and IDG Capital.

Castbox’s main competitors in the market include companies like Overcast and Stitcher, as well as Google—which finally launched its dedicated Google Podcasts app last year.

Despite drawing on features commonly found in Chinese apps, virtually none of the 28 million users come from China, according to Wang. She also does not have plans to bring Castbox to the mainland Chinese market.

“All of our experience today is still focused on the global market, it’s a different ecosystem in terms of the mobile industry—the monetization and development and distribution are totally different,” she said.

“There are already tons of existing spoken audio platforms that have done a really good job, and we’d like to just learn from them, gather ideas and learn from their best practices.”

This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post.