HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Every night, millions of Chinese millennials swipe their smartphone screens and spend money to lavish virtual gifts on their favorite real-time entertainers.
It has become a daily habit for 73 million users of live-streaming platform YY Inc as they seek out everything from singing and dancing performances, makeup tutorials, trivia games and extreme sports.
On the other side of the screen, the biggest talents earn more than 10 million yuan (S$2.1 million) a year, even from the comfort of their bedrooms.
China has become the largest market for live streaming, with 2018 revenue expected to reach US$4.4 billion (S$5.9 billion), according to a December report from Deloitte.
And the boom has been a boon for YY shares, which have almost tripled in the past 12 months and given founder Xueling Li a net worth of US$1.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Li, 44, owns a 20 per cent stake directly and through holding companies in the British Virginia Islands - YYME Ltd and New Wales Holdings, according to an August 2017 prospectus supplement.
He also has a majority stake in Singapore-based live-streaming startup BIGO Technology Pte Ltd worth more than US$200 million, according to the Bloomberg index.
Li controls a majority of YY voting power, allowing him to "lead my company the way I want, which is most important to me," he said in a phone interview, "I rarely sell my shares, so YY's share price won't have too much impact on me."
Li, who graduated from Renmin University of China with a degree in philosophy, is a journalist-turned-entrepreneur. He started his career as a technology reporter in Beijing and rose to become chief editor of NetEase.com, a website founded by Chinese billionaire Ding Lei.
He quit in 2005 and started online-gaming aggregator Duowan.com in a Guangzhou apartment with US$1 million of angel funding from tech tycoon Lei Jun, who became known as China's Steve Jobs for creating smartphone brand Xiaomi.
Duowan.com became a wholly owned subsidiary of YY Inc in 2011.
YY Client was the company's first live-chat product, helping draw millions of players and giving Lei more than a hundred-fold return on his investment, after the firm landed on Nasdaq in 2012.
Lei's YY stake is valued at almost US$800 million and he also reaped at least US$272 million from share sales, according to company filings and data compiled by Bloomberg.
YY expanded into music, education and online dating over the past decade and posted revenue of 8.2 billion yuan in 2016.
Li briefly stepped down as chief executive officer in August of that year, reclaiming the post 10 months later after his successor resigned for health reasons.
"The market recognised the company's strategy on product innovation and user-acquisition," said Zhou Zhe, an analyst at Bank of Communication International, who called Li's return a help to the business.
YY also is planning to spin off Huya Broadcasting, its money-losing, Twitch-like e-sports arm, to bolster its balance sheet. Huya is the second largest game-streaming platform in China by monthly active users.
"If Huya becomes publicly traded, it will improve YY's valuation," said Sophie Huang, an analyst at CMB International Capital Holdings.
Li is looking beyond China with Bigo, which debuted its streaming service in South-east Asia two years ago.
Bigo Live has about 200 million registered users in more than 100 countries, including Japan, India and the US. Li said the business had US$300 million of revenue in 2017 and is now profitable.
"We only need 2 per cent to 5 per cent paid users to break even and support further development," he said. "Providing content that users are willing to pay for, this is the most sustainable business model of live-streaming."