In a Cinderella story that Bloomberg is calling “David vs. Goliath — with emojis,” a new chat app is shaking up the Chinese messaging world.

Bullet reached 5 million users only two weeks after it debuted in August, temporarily bumping messaging giant WeChat from its perch in China's App Store.

Although it won’t be speeding past WeChat — which surpassed 1 billion users this year — anytime soon, Bullet’s impressive trajectory suggests Chinese consumers are thirsty for more messaging freedom.

Kidnapped for too long

Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion users) is the messaging app of choice in North America, while WhatsApp (1.5 billion users) dominates much of the rest of the world. But both are among the many tech platforms censored by the Chinese government.

The Great Firewall has enabled WeChat to dominate not only messaging but social networking, electronic payments, ride-hailing, food delivery and other key aspects of modern Chinese life.

As one Beijing student expresses in the Bloomberg story, Bullet offers Chinese citizens a long-sought alternative:

A lot of my friends and I feel we’ve been kidnapped by WeChat for too long.

Voice of a generation 🙊

Bullet’s features are nowhere near as comprehensive as WeChat’s, but that’s sort of the point. As its name suggests, Bullet prioritizes speed — and its designers seem laser-focused on serving the unique messaging habits of Chinese consumers.

Unlike in the West, many people in China communicate by sending short voice messages back and forth, rather than text. WeChat popularized voice messaging in 2012 but its features in this area have fallen behind even international rivals like WhatsApp.

Bullet boasts a powerful voice recognition feature that instantly transcribes voice into text and sends it along with the audio message. As Fortune points out, this provides “a visible record of the conversation” — combining the intimacy of voice with the convenience and persistence of messaging.

Don’t call it a WeChat killer 😇

Despite concerns about privacy and porn on the platform (too little of the former, too much of the latter), Bullet has attracted a $90 million valuation and $22 million in funding from high-profile investors, including Chinese smartphone manufacturer Smartisan.

Smartisan’s founder, Luo Yonghao, is known for Steve Jobs-esque product announcements and public stunts like smashing refrigerators to protest poor design.

Some credit the buzz around Bullet to Luo’s cult of personality, though Luo has been quick to play down the company’s ambitions:

We are not challenging WeChat. We are creating a niche product for people who care about the efficiency of communication

For the past few years, WeChat has been held up as Exhibit A for the inevitable rise of conversational commerce in the west. A little competition at home may be a good thing — not just for WeChat, but for the future of messaging on a global scale.


This is an excerpt from The Message, Smooch’s biweekly newsletter about the messaging industry, chatbots and conversational commerce. Subscribe to get the next edition delivered straight to your inbox.