Ushi, often referred to as the Chinese LinkedIn, has released an app for scanning and storing name card information, as it works to build momentum for its professional social network.

The first thing you do in just about any Chinese professional setting is whip out a name card. Lots of cultures put the time-honored practice to use, but it seems to me that the East Asia region is the most strict in its observance of business cards and introductions. For countries like China, Korea and Japan where the concept of “face” is a crucial part of doing business, name cards and the titles and roles they convey are essential.

But they’re also antiquated. We carry paper around with us, despite the face that we have powerful mobile computers at our fingertips. Often those business cards end up in a drawer collecting dust and we’re unable to find the one we need when it’s time to reconnect.

Several startups are tackling the problem. Yolu Card Reader and Evernote’s Yinxiang Biji Renmai (the localized version of Evernote Hello) come to mind, but Shanghai-based Ushi, as the latest entrant, has the weight of its social network behind it.

With 850,000 users, Ushi isn’t huge. It started out as an exclusive invite-only network targeting executives and entrepreneurs, though it has since opened up registration to all. Ushi Mingpian (Ushi Name Card) is designed to continue driving user growth by solving the name card problem. The app is currently available for both iPhone and Android.

 Chinese professional social network Ushi launches name card and contacts app

Ushi CEO and co-founder Dominic Penaloza believes the app will help new users to a real-name professional social network because they’re already familiar with the concept of a name card being an important real-name tool. Whether Chinese netizens like it or not, real-name requirements are going to be more and more common on the country’s Internet, if not fully mandated.

“When two business people exchange business cards, not only is it the fundamental first thing they ever do, but it helps us to explain a lot of things. The name card of course is real-name. It’s for business, that’s what it’s for,” Penaloza said.

The foundation of the app is a name card scanner, but it’s more importantly designed to be a self-updating address book.

“I think we’re in the best position in the market to deliver on the promise of the self-updating address book and create even more value for users,” he said, adding that the app balances the utility of card scanning with social aspects.

 Chinese professional social network Ushi launches name card and contacts app

In its 2 1/2 year history, Ushi has managed to attract a highly valuable demographic to its professional network. The average age is 31 years old, so it skews heavily toward middle-upper management. One-third of Ushi’s users are in the technology, media and telecom industries, while 20 percent are in professional services. Penaloza also estimates there are 15,000 headhunters, 25,000 HR professionals and about 7,000 venture capitalists on the network.

The company’s exclusive beginnings helped to Ushi to court an older crowd. Prior to launch, the team spent months in face-to-face meetings with Chinese CEOs and business leaders to convince them to become charter members. Penaloza says the network grew to 50,000 members in five months, roughly the same speed as Facebook. A year later, it was at 300,000 members and the company decided to open up registration to speed growth.

A number of prominent Chinese angel investors have backed Ushi, as well as one of its clients, expert network Gerson Lehrman Group. In April, Ushi began offering commercial services to source experts for GLG.

“It really works. It’s becoming one of [GLG’s] efficient channels,” said Penaloza.

Ushi says it doesn’t need to directly make money from the new card-reading app. Penaloza compared his company’s status to that of LinkedIn, in that their revenue stream is robust enough not to have been adversely affected by the switch to mobile and the resulting lower revenue streams that non-professional Internet companies are dealing with.

“It gives us more liberty to make a great smartphone app and not worry directly about monetizing the users of it,” he said.

Tianji, China’s leading professional social network, expects the market to grow to 100 million next year. If that’s the case, Ushi’s going to have to move fast to secure a decent share of it, since it has yet to top 1 million. The industry is heating up fast, as Sina recently revealed that it is spinning off a business-focused subset of its Weibo microblog with the help of Yolu. Ushi’s new app is a step in the right direction, so this is definitely going to be an interesting space to watch next year.

Ushi Mingpian

Image credit: Comstock

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