When Yu Jianjun was looking to name his podcast start-up back in 2012, he looked at how Jeff Bezos chose Amazon after the great South American river and Jack Ma picked Alibaba after a character in the Middle Eastern folk tale collection One Thousand and One Nights.

Both Amazon and Alibaba had universal recognition and appeal. So Yu decided to name his company, now China’s most popular podcasting platform, after the great Asian mountain range, the Himalayas, that is home to the highest peak in the world.

The Ximalaya FM app. (Picture: Handout)

Ximalaya FM now has about 500 million users, according to a company spokeswoman. That compares with Lizhi FM and Dragonfly FM, with 34 million and 30 million users, respectively.

Podcasts, or digital audio programs that are available for download or streaming, have surged in popularity worldwide, particularly in the United States, where two-thirds of Americans listen to podcasts at least a few times a week, especially on their commutes, according to a CBS News poll. The wide range of topics means there is a probably a podcast episode for every taste and need in this era of on-demand content.

In China, podcasting has also gained in popularity. The total number of podcast listeners surged to 425 million last year, compared with 348 million in 2017, according to data from iiMedia Research.

At Ximalaya, the average user spends 150 minutes a day on the app, said Sun Tian, a vice-president at the company, on an episode of the China Startup Pulse podcast in August. The app has attracted millions of users because of demand from ambitious go-getters with voracious appetites for knowledge to parents using the audio-sharing platform to read stories or teach their children, according to Sun.

More than five million users create and upload content onto the Ximalaya platform. There is no ranking of podcasters on the platform, according to the company’s spokeswoman.

“Our mission is to enable any talent to share their know-how, and be appreciated emotionally and financially,” Sun said. “Many of our podcasters have never dreamed of becoming big audio stars, or even heard of ‘podcaster’ or ‘knowledge sharing’” before Ximalaya, she said.

The Shanghai-based company, which counts Xiaomi Corp and TAL Education among its investors, is reportedly valued at more than US$3 billion and considering an initial public offering (IPO). When contacted for comment, the Ximalaya spokeswoman said the company does not have a clear plan for an IPO right now. Ximalaya declined to make Yu, the firm’s co-founder and chief executive, available for an interview.

Ximalaya FM has its own smart speaker designed just for Communist Party members. (Picture: Handout)

All that is a far cry from Ximalaya’s humble beginnings in 2012, when Yu was an undergraduate at Xi’an Jiaotong University majoring in mechanical engineering. He later received his master’s degree from the same university.

Inspired by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his book The Road Ahead, Yu and a number of his classmates rented a small flat after graduation and tried their hand at different internet businesses, he recounted in a speech at a conference in 2016.

An early start-up, Na Li Shi Jie, focused on building a virtual world online, but it failed after burning through 20 million yuan (US$2.8 million) in funds. That prompted Yu to slash the size of his team by about 90%.

Yu saw the opportunity for audio sharing because of the surge in smartphone ownership in China. The shift from desktop personal computers to smartphones also means portable access to online content, including podcasts. Users can listen to episodes while they were commuting or doing housework, and not just listen to the radio in cars, Yu said in a separate speech in 2015.

Ximalaya now has more than 70% of the audiobook rights to the bestselling titles in China and 85% of adaptation rights for online literature, according to iiMedia.

Ximalaya set up a category for paid content in June 2016. As of May this year, there were four million registered paying members on the platform, according to the company’s spokeswoman.

To optimize its content, the company is using algorithms to better understand the users, Sun said. The analysis is shared with the content creators to improve the podcast quality, she said.

To be sure, there have been hiccups.

The Ximalaya audio streaming app was removed from various Android app stores in China in July for 30 days as part of a clean-up campaign by the Cybersecurity Administration of China, which criticised the platform for hosting pornographic content and promoting “historical nihilism.” The company is also embroiled in disputes over copyright, according to a check of filings on China Judgments Online, an online repository of court judgments.

For Yu, his ambition does not stop at building just an audio platform.

Ximalaya ventured into hardware with the introduction of a smart speaker called Xiaoya in September last year. It is a competitive space with Alibaba Group Holding, Baidu, Xiaomi and JD.com each having their own smart speakers in the market. New York-listed Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

“When it is ready, Ximalaya will not only be an FM platform,” Yu said in a 2018 interview. “Instead, it will become an online audio ecosystem. Just like the range of Himalaya is composed of mountains.”

(Abacus is a unit of South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)