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Amber keeps a weather eye on markets abroad

By SHI JING in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2020-07-06 09:20
A woman checks weather using Amber Weather in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, on Wednesday. [Photo by Qian Zhenxiang/For China Daily]

China's rising mobile tool makes inroads into 100 countries with customized offerings

Most internet-based startups like mobile apps tend to offer social networking, mobile games, e-commerce, fintech, entertainment, news aggregation, short videos and the like, but Song Rui chose a different path-tools-and thus rolled out with his team Amber Weather in 2015. The app offers timely weather reports.

In his view, the mobile internet industry in China was already quite mature at that time. Leading industry players had already seized stable market shares in each sector, including news media, online search, social networking and e-commerce. Even in overseas markets, sectors with large consumer bases and unwavering demand had all been fully explored by large companies.

There was not much choice left for Song, it seemed. So, he chose to look at the bright side anyway, the silver lining, if you will. He further narrowed down his choice.

"We concluded that there should be two major features in our new startup project. First, it should meet a real steady demand but with lower user stickiness. Second, it should be able to serve a large number of people. With these two factors in mind, we finally looked at weather service apps," he said.

Over time, Amber Weather has grown into an app with nearly 10 million users in more than 100 countries and regions. The app has been downloaded nearly 50 million times.

While demand for weather information seems universal, the biggest obstacle to reaching overseas users is inadequate insights into local markets, Song said.

For users in Japan, a warning function for imminent tsunamis and earthquakes may be needed. For users in Europe, weather updates on specific ski fields are prized information. For users in Iraq and Iran where internet connectivity is not always stable, hourly weather reports may not be required. On the contrary, they would prefer a downloadable weather forecast for the next 72 hours.

Amber Weather has also come across users in certain occupations that are less known in China. For example, horticulturists use the app and demand precise hourly information on wind speed and humidity.

"While plain-vanilla weather forecast apps are embedded in most of the mobile phones these days, our app can meet specific demands of 80 percent of phone users. For others, highly specific or expert information is unnecessary. That means opportunity for us to customize information for a variety of audiences," he said.

It is no easy job to explore niche markets. "When the developer is based in China, it is very likely that his parents are the product's users. It's much easier to conduct user interviews to get a better understanding of user demand. But such accessibility can't be easily realized in overseas markets. People's living environment, cultural background and traditions make all the difference," he said.

To address such inadequacies, Amber Weather has turned to multiple channels to shorten the distance with users. Online forums or search engines are the virtual means to connect the app with users.

The company also attends industry pageants such as Google Developer Day held in the Middle East or North Africa-the less-visited markets-to hold offline talks with local users. It is through one such direct interaction that the company drew inspiration to add a Ramadan month fasting alarm function for the benefit of the users in the Middle East, said Song.

Instead of adopting the costlier way of setting up overseas offices, Amber Weather chooses to offer internship opportunities to foreign candidates, which also serves the purpose of getting first-hand insights into local markets, said Song.

In the five years after 2014, Amber Weather had focused only on overseas markets. There is no intention to foray into the Chinese market. For Song, that choice is based on the fundamental of demand and supply.

"It can be said that China's internet industry is highly developed. Although the Chinese market enjoys a large consumer base, supply of internet products and services has exceeded demand. The market has reached a short-term equilibrium. What our team would face in China is competition from companies bearing similar capabilities or even stronger ones," he said.

But it is quite a different story in overseas markets. First of all, overseas markets are nearly five times the size of the Chinese market, plausibly indicating more opportunities. Second of all, there are fewer companies able to compete with Amber Weather.

"When it comes to markets like Russia or Brazil, there are few companies with a headcount of nearly 50 employees. Most of them are teams of much smaller size, or more often, individual developers. Combined with the larger size of the markets, the intensity of competition will be much lower in general," said Song.

During an internet industry forum held in mid June, Wei Haijun, founding partner of cross-border fund Grand View Capital, said that exploring the overseas markets will be the "new normal" for Chinese internet-based companies, as the growth opportunities lie in the global market.

Chinese internet-based companies still enjoy a competitive advantage when exploring overseas markets, according to the 2020 Chinese outbound internet companies white paper jointly released by Huawei Cloud and online community BaijingApp. Chinese internet-based companies' capabilities in infrastructure technologies and services such as digital payments are superior to most of the markets in the world, said the report.

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