Chinese tech founder pivots to live streaming to repay his mountain of debt
Smartisan CEO Luo Yonghao once boasted he would buy Apple, but he’s since fallen on hard times
The life of Chinese tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao seems like a series of misadventures. After founding popular smartphone brand Smartisan, Luo fell on hard times last year. His situation became dire enough that he landed on China’s notorious debtor blacklist that banned him from planes and high-speed trains.
But after seemingly unsuccessful ventures into vaping and something called “shark skin” technology, the phoenix is rising from the ashes again. Luo announced through his Weibo account on Thursday that he’s moving into ecommerce through live streaming and is looking for partners who want to promote their products.
“Although I am not fit to sell lipstick, I believe that I can be a great seller for many products,” Luo said, signaling his desire to achieve the stardom of male beauty vlogger Austin Li, who’s known for his viral lipstick-selling skills.
Despite setbacks from previous ventures, the founder seemed enthusiastic in his post about becoming a live-streaming influencer. His main area of focus would be tech products, designer goods, books, household items and snacks.
As soon as the news got out, China’s internet lit up with speculation.
On Monday, an influential Weibo user announced that Luo is signing an exclusive 80 million yuan (US$11.2 million) deal with ecommerce platform Taobao. That same day, a local media outlet reported that the star aims to build his new career on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. This would make the previous alleged deal not so exclusive. Neither company has confirmed the rumors.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Taobao operator Alibaba.)
Luo is a well-known figure in China’s tech scene, but not so much for his entrepreneurship as for his flamboyant personality. He might be the only company founder who managed to get users to pay to attend a launch event -- and he set a Guinness World Record for its attendance.
After going viral for his humorous digressions as an English teacher, he went on to establish Smartisan in 2012. Back in 2018, the company had big plans. Luo boasted that Apple “will copy us like crazy” during the launch of the R1 smartphone that featured a terabyte of storage.
But things didn't turn out well for Smartisan as China’s smartphone market started to slow. At the end of 2019, Luo announced on Weibo that he personally vouched for a loan of more than 100 million yuan (US$14.1 million) and raised tens of millions of yuan more to help save Smartisan. The company ended up making a deal with ByteDance that saw the TikTok owner pick up some of Smartisan’s patents and employees. When the Smartisan Nut Pro 3 was released a few months ago, it was known as the TikTok phone.
After Smartisan, Luo has since unsuccessfully flirted with China’s burgeoning vaping industry before it faced a health crisis last year. Then in December Luo made another bold stage appearance as director of global branding at Sharklet, a company that makes antibacterial plastic inspired by the texture of shark skin. Luo also announced he was released from the court’s spending restrictions. His name, however, was soon removed from Sharklet’s list of executives.