Feb 12, 2013 · 4 minutes

Question: What do you do if you’re a location-based social app living in the shadow of a new entrant that suddenly has 300 million users and, seemingly, the attention of the entirety of the world’s biggest Internet market?

Answer: Pivot.

Jiepang is China’s most successful Foursquare clone – sorry, analogue. (That's its mascot in the picture above.) The two-year-old location-based check-in app has 4 million users, and 500,000 monthly active users, which is a pittance in China, where the Internet population is approaching 600 million. But it is enough, apparently, to build a rather dedicated niche network. Jiepang CEO David Liu, who’s back in the US, his home country, for Chinese New Year, says 200,000 people use the service every day, and the most dedicated users check in to at least two places a day. The company works with brands such as Starbucks, Nike, and Converse to do customized deals for users. Such partnerships account for “99.9 percent” of the company’s revenue, which last year was about $1.5 million, Liu says.

However, like Foursquare, Jiepang will this year de-emphasize the check-in. And actually, Jiepang will go even further than that. By switching to a Path-like journal approach intended to facilitate social sharing among friends, Jiepang will be making the location aspect a sideshow to the main thrust of the soon-to-be-revamped app. Last year, the startup launched several new Foursquare-like features, including an Explore copy that provides editorially curated recommendations based on place. However, few people actually used it. People would browse the recommendations but not take actions, such as saving them or marking a certain place.

“The majority use it as a social app to express great moments in great places,” says Liu.

And so, this year, Jiepang will likely look more like Path than Foursquare. Liu doesn’t have much of a choice. His hand is being forced by the intense popularity of Tencent’s Weixin – the English language version of which is called WeChat – which has become a Facebook-like force in China, occupying prime position on smartphones around the country and sucking up the social juice from the likes of the Twitter-like Sina Weibo and the Facebook-like Ren Ren. Weixin not only allows people to chat by SMS, audio messages, and FaceTime-like video, but it also lets them share their “moments” by way of photos and status updates arranged on a timeline. Crucially for Jiepang, Weixin has also baked location into the app as a standard element of the social sharing experience.

Liu sees Weixin as taking on a Facebook-like role in serving as the main social feed for mobile users in China. But at the same time, he sees an opportunity to serve a more defined, niche audience. Weixin feeds are cluttered with updates and photos from everyone who happens to be in your address book as well people in your social graph, he says. So Jiepang would like to be the kind of destination that caters to more narrowly defined sharing between “real” friends. “There’s so many niches that could be served better, and if served right could result in a decent amount of growth and community,” Liu says.

This year, Jiepang will also experiment with producing multiple apps, a strategy attempted by the likes of Evernote, Facebook, and Douban, a Chinese social network targeted at indie culture. Liu wants to leverage the app’s data and its core competencies – sharing of quality photos, tips, and information – and tease it out across a range of products. The focus will remain on young urban Chinese and their lifestyles. Given the over-abundance of apps already in app stores, Liu’s unsure how such an approach might work out, but he expresses a willingness to let products fail in an effort to find the few that will really take off.

Jiepang’s strongest advantage has been that it comes pre-loaded into numerous handsets in China, most prominently HTC smartphones, but also Sony Ericsson, and Nokia. To win those deals, Liu relied on his experience as a founder of a company that built an open-source operating system and launched low-cost PCs and netbooks into chain stores in the US such as Walmart and Best Buy. It was through that work that he started working with manufacturers in Taiwan, before realizing a market opportunity for mobile social media in China. He moved to Beijing in 2010 and raised $6 million for Jiepang from an angel investor, an HTC executive.

This year will be a crucial one for Jiepang and one that could actually kill it. Location sharing in China, as in the US, has become more of a geotag than a phenomenon in its own right, and so Weixin pretty much now owns it. By transforming itself into just another social network, Jiepang is putting everything on the line. Now it will compete against Weibo, Ren Ren, and Douban, among others. Liu will be hoping there's just enough light between the cracks to accommodate an even more niche network.