M17’s Joseph Phua on Asia’s diversifying live streaming landscape

After a botched IPO, M17 is carving out its niche as a B2B live streaming platform.

Photo courtesy of M17 Group.

Just two years ago, live streaming wasn’t yet mainstream in Southeast Asia. There was BIGO, an offshoot of the Chinese live streaming app YY, launched in 2016. It didn’t have a great reputation– it was mainly seen as a place where young female live streamers solicit virtual gifts form male viewers. Then came BeLive, an app that wanted to set itself apart from BIGO with a more wholesome live streaming experience with high quality content.

Now, live streaming is much more diversified and it has grown up. Some of the sleaze factors remain, but live streaming operators are promising stricter controls and content filtering with the help of AI.

By revenue, BIGO is the biggest in Southeast Asia, followed by VivaVideo, also a China-owned app, and MLive, an Australian-owned app. The fourth is 17, owned by Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based M17 Group, according to Sensor Tower data quoted by the South China Morning Post.

M17 is linked to Southeast Asia because it’s the result of a merger between Singaporean dating app Paktor and 17’s predecessor. It made negative headlines with a botched IPO last year, but has raised new funding and is working on its comeback with a new live shopping app called HandsUp and other plans.

KrASIA recently interviewed Joseph Phua, the CEO of M17 Group, about the live streaming wave in Southeast Asia.

KrASIA (Kr):  You started out building a dating app in Singapore. How did you end up as the CEO of a live streaming company based out of Taiwan?

Joseph Phua (JP): I was born and raised in Singapore. One summer when I was at business school in the US, I got dumped by my girlfriend and I started using Tinder. I wanted to bring Tinder to Southeast Asia, it wasn’t big here yet. That’s when we built the dating product, Paktor, in 2013.

I met my current business partner Jeff [Jeffrey Huang,] in 2014. We were competitors at that time, but in 2015 he stopped working on the dating app and started live streaming. At some point he was going through operational difficulties. One of the investors backed out after signing a binding agreement. I stepped in and we decided to merge 17 and Paktor, and I took over as CEO. M17 and Paktor still operate as standalone apps. We haven’t had time to integrate them.

Kr: Live streaming is on the rise, but there are many players. What’s the difference between BIGO and M17?

JP: The content is very different. We target mature markets. In Japan and Taiwan we have over 50% market share. Our content is from markets where the entertainment industries are quite advanced.

At M17, we work with people who have spent a long time managing their fanbase. They use our platform exclusively only for live streaming. Beyond that, we help our talents across platforms. We cut music singles, we have made television shows, and we work with talent agencies. We try to give our talents exposure.

This stems from my partner Jeff, who was a musician himself as part of the rap group LA Boyz. What we do is relatively high touch, so it’s not possible to do this for thousands of talents. We directly work with hundreds of talents.

Our competitors are targeting developing markets. There you have low ARPU [average revenue per user]. That’s the long tail, they need a big user base.

Everyone has crafted their own spaces. Some platforms rely on archived content, not live content. Similarly, we’ve crafted our niche in the developed talent markets, and we’re taking a B2B approach.

Kr: B2B approach? Is this similar to what BIGO is calling “broadcasting as a service”?

JP:  What I was referring to is HandsUp, a live commerce product we recently launched, which we offer to merchants in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model.

To build up live tech takes time, and [17 Media group] can provide that service white labeled to merchants.

We control the talent base in Japan and Taiwan, there isn’t a larger talent pool than ours there. If [merchants] want to work with these talents for live commerce, you have to go through us. We have a platform for that, an API they can plug into, and we take a fee. We have a base of 3,000 merchants signed up.

But even before that, we had a live streaming software development kit (SDK), which is similar to BaaS. This lets us break down live streaming into components and assemble it to suit different requirements. These components need to be standardized before they can be used by different applications. And then applications can assemble their own livestream components according to their needs, such as gifting, chatroom, cash-flow for e-commerce, and replay features.

This SDK is what enabled us to create HandsUp which now offers live commerce components in a SaaS model.

Kr: You took a hit with the last minute cancellation of the IPO. What happened, and what are your new plans?

JP: We’ve told the story before. In short, we decided to withdraw and now we are looking towards building the business. We built a strong management team, hired a CFO, and these opportunities might arise again.

We expect to make USD 300 million in revenue this year, we’re profitable. We have 50 million registered users. We don’t release the monthly active user count.

Kr: The Sensor Tower report mentions 17 Media ranks 4th in terms of live streaming app revenue in Southeast Asia but it’s not really among the top in terms of downloads. How do you explain this?

JP: From the way I see it, I believe it means 17 Media has a very cost effective monetization strategy.

Kr: Where’s live streaming headed next?

JP: You cannot escape live streaming. I think we are on the cusp of finding out how many other use cases [for live streaming] there are.

Things are changing fast and Southeast Asia is already catching up. Online dating was a taboo just a few years ago, now it’s normal. Same with live streaming. It’s already mainstream and all around us. We’re already working with major media corporations.